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Refusing to Solve the Problem -- A Conversation with Robert Urquhart

Note: This interview is one of a series with faculty at the University of Denver about writing and the teaching of writing. Interviewer Joanna Ruocco earned her PhD in fiction from DU. She's the author of four books, including the award-winning Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, although she's published other novels under a pseudonym. Her work has been reviewed widely, including in Triquarterly and The Nation.

Robert Urquhart is a professor in the Economics Department and the author of the book Ordinary Choices. He's currently working on a series of essays that challenge the standard notion of the isolated individual in economic theory and develop the idea that the individual cannot exist alone but only in relation to others. I asked him about his writing process and the role of writing in economics and the economics classroom.

Joanna Ruocco: What do you do when you begin to write a new project?

Robert Urquhart: I actually write everything out by hand first, and I try to have a complete draft of things handwritten before I type it out. To me, thinking through handwriting is a really different thing than typing at a keyboard. If I'm pressed for time, I end up having to start writing directly on the keyboard; and I don't have the same feeling of the thought coming on. I write everything in a notebook. And if you turn the page of the notebook, the handwriting varies. Sometimes it's really messy and quite large. Sometimes it's smaller and much neater. And that really is an indication of how clearly the thoughts were proceeding. And sometimes when the writing is small, fairly neat, I think it's a sign that I was really on top of things. And then sometimes when the writing is really a mess, I was kind of floundering around – which isn't a bad thing at all. The floundering around is just as important as the getting things really clearly. I can actually see that in my handwriting itself.

JR: Do you think about yourself as a writer? As an economist? As a professor? Of course, these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms.

RU: Well, first of all, I always have trouble thinking of myself as an economist, because so much of what I do involves pushing against economics from outside it. I try to write in a way that I think is useful as a critique of economics. But, yes, I do think of myself as a writer as well as a teacher. I value writing. I read economics and academic work, but I also read novels and poetry. I don't see them as being different. I think one of the real problems in economics is the tendency to see writing as purely functional. This leads to a very uncritical approach to economics, which I think is damaging. Valuing writing changes the way economics is done. The quantitative dimension of economics has become overwhelming. If you turn the pages of an economics text, a great deal of it will be equations. It's not that there's anything wrong with using quantitative methods in economics; economics has an absolutely necessary quantitative side, but there has to a conceptual development that gets you to the point where quantification makes sense

JR: So I take it you're not trying to train students to write like economists.

Prof. Urquhart: No. In our department, we try to teach students neoclassical economics very well and very rigorously. But we also teach them alternative approaches, and we try to encourage them to think critically about economics, to think critically about neoclassical economics, but also think critically about all the other approaches as well. We very much stress reading original sources. We believe writing is a way for students to develop their ability to think, and especially develop their ability to think critically. So writing is a very important part of what we do.

JR: What do you hope students learn as writers?

RU: My students write about the material they read, and I hope that they find a way through writing to think for themselves, so that they make the ideas their own whether they agree with them or not. The ideas become alive in their minds. There isn't always a correct answer. What's important is that the questions remain open and require a continued searching, a continued engagement.

JR: It sounds like you make a strong connection between writing and critical thinking.

RU: Learning how to think is above all learning how to make complex ideas alive in your own mind. Everyone goes on and on about critical thinking, but very often, critical thinking comes to be such a vague term that you even hear people saying things like, "Critical thinking is problem solving." Problem solving is great, but one thing it's not is critical. The whole point about problem solving is, "There's the problem, here are the means to solve the problem. You put them together and find the right way to solve the problem." There's nothing critical about that. And so critical thinking involves questioning not merely the content of any argument, but questioning the form of the argument itself, asking how and why it's framed as it is. This turns into a critique of the existing order of things, and this idea of critique seems to me to be absolutely fundamental. You don't have to accept this existing order as a given, and that's it. Students shouldn't just be presented with conclusions. It's important to keep things open and think through alternatives. I do want students to learn definite content, but unless their thinking carries them into this dimension where they're considering the nature of their thoughts themselves, then they haven't learned enough.