Michael Morrone's course, L216 "Black Markets"

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Michael Morrone has been teaching the popular sophomore seminar L216 “Black Markets,” for over a decade. We asked Morrone to tell us a bit more about his original idea for the course, his favorite project topics, and his ideas for the future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

  1. How did you come up with the idea for the Black Markets course?

In fall 2009, I met with then LAMP director Jim Madison to express my interest in teaching L216. He asked me to propose a course and advised something that would encourage thinking from multiple perspectives and that would allow me to learn along with my students.

I’m trained as a lawyer and I began my legal career at a non-profit immigration law firm in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. That work in the early/mid 1990s introduced me to the reality of human trafficking and I saw how intertwined it was with rampant black-market activity. Over years of working with asylum seekers, I was exposed to the impact of arms smuggling, blood diamonds, slavery, and human trafficking. This experience really changed how I saw the world and it seemed just the kind of subject material for a LAMP seminar. By the way, really, anyone who crosses the Rio Grande from Texas to Mexico can look at the riverbanks and see evidence of trafficking such as plastic bags of clothing or discarded ropes. 

As for the topics we discuss in class - there are three “acts”: the black markets, the human element, and ethics.  We begin with an exploration of black markets around the world. We then read about organized crime following the dismantling of the Soviet Union and learn about illicit market activity in a now-demolished Chicago housing project. We then look at core principles driving black market activity. Then, the class moves to consider the motivators, contributors, and strategies at work among the human beings who are parts of these markets: influence, desire, greed, need, power, desperation, happiness, inequity, poverty, psychological biases. In the class’s final move we consider how individuals can act as ethical leaders given the ambiguities of the global marketplace. 

Over time, the content of the course has shifted in important ways two times. The third part of the course hadn’t originally been there, but ethical considerations kept coming up in discussion. The class easily goes in a dark direction but ending the semester with a focus on ethical approaches to handling complexity highlights our own agency in addressing the dark aspects of black-market activity and the reasons for its existence.

The second shift occurred this year, when I incorporated a greater diversity of authors into the course. The class has always challenged monolithic expectations about “the way the world should work”—these revisions add new depth to our discussions. 

  1. Like the students in Eric Metzler’s L416 on Consumerism, your students’ final projects take fhe form of an IU Pressbook (for example Versions 2, 3 and 4). What is that? Can you tell us more about the platform and why you use it? Are the books read beyond IU?


In 2018, IU arranged to have a university-wide license with an authoring and book-publishing platform called Pressbooks. At that time, I reimagined the course’s capstone paper as a project in which the class authors a peer-reviewed publication. The project itself is built through a series of stages (in the jargon of teaching and learning, it’s “highly scaffolded”). For example, at the stage of thesis formation, we have a one-class-period event I call “thesis paragraph speed dating”—a protocol in which every student receives feedback from every other student and me. The students engage in rigorous analysis of secondary sources and practice analysis and synthesis of qualitative data. Throughout the semester, their drafts are blind-reviewed and discussed in class. The students also collaboratively identify themes by which to organize the content and write the general introduction to the book together.

Interestingly, I recently stumbled upon Volume 2 listed as a text at Texas A&M International University! So, yes, the books are being read.

  1. What are some of your favorite research topics that students have explored in your course? 

Oh my…every volume has such diverse topics and genres from traditional essays, to movie or TV series reviews, to creative non-fiction, and more. Drugs and the war on drugs have received lots of attention. Some perspectives considered through the years: the TV series Narcos, cannabis legalization in Colorado, The Dallas Buyers Club, illegal botox, organ trafficking, human trafficking, and illegal wildlife trafficking. Each volume has some off-beat markets too such as essays on black-market cheese in Russia and an essay on bee “mafias.”

  1. What do you enjoy about working with LAMP students? 

Being 25 years into my teaching career, I can say my motivation comes from my students’ curiosity and my own. LAMP students desire to explore across disciplines, expect challenges, and make connections from the classroom to life. As they push to learn as much as they can, I find I learn so much too. How cool is that? 

  1. If you had unlimited resources (time, money, energy) what is another topic you would want to explore for L216? 

A number of years ago in Kelley, I tested a one credit hour “hot topics “course called “Business Fights Poverty.” The course looked at anti-poverty efforts by companies, such as Cemex, Tom’s shoes, Two Degrees Food, and the former Daimler-Chrysler. Students considered and discussed the interactions of poverty and business cycles. They identified and studied business models (such as co-ops, micro loan organizations, schedule B corporations) that positively affect quality of life in areas of high poverty. We co-created a scale to rate business anti-poverty efforts; each student applied our scale to a business that interested them and reported the outcomes of their analysis with the class. I think that LAMP students would thrive in a course like this one; however, the black-markets course works so well I have been extremely hesitant to move away from it. Another course that I think about is one on corporate lobbying.