Kenneth Elzinga

Ken Elzinga is probably the nation's most successful teacher of college-level economics. In addition to receiving numerous teaching awards, he has made introductory economics at the University of Virginia the most popular course sequence on campus. He is so highly respected that when the Southern Economic Association recently established a teaching award, they named it the Kenneth Elzinga Award. He is currently the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics and has previously taught at Pepperdine, Cambridge, Trinity, and Michigan State. He received his B.A. from Kalamazoo College (1963) and his Ph.D. from Michigan State (1967). In addition to serving on several editorial boards, his scholarly work has appeared in the leading journals of economics. The Antitrust Casebook: Milestones in Economic Regulation, 3rd ed. (Dryden Press, 1996) is his latest in a series of books addressing antitrust issues. Dr. Elzinga is widely recognized as a leading authority on industrial organization and anti-trust policy.

Interview with Ken Elzinga

» You have been a successful teacher of introductory economics for many years. Has your teaching style changed through the years?

Yes. I am more prone to use examples and stories in class than I did in my early years of teaching. For example, when I was a new faculty member, I adopted the traditional pattern of using "widgets" and "capital and labor" and "guns and butter." I taught the way most economists taught, using abstract examples rather than real world products and stories. Now I stay away from "widgets" and I draw heavily upon newspaper sources and current events, often stories from the Wall Street Journal.

» Who has had the biggest influence on your teaching?

Lots of people have influenced my teaching but I will single out three, each from a different part of my academic life. The first would be Professor Sherrill Cleland, who introduced me to economics at Kalamazoo College and encouraged me to pursue graduate work in the field and had far more confidence in me than I had in myself.

In graduate school, I was heavily influenced by Professor Walter Adams, who introduced me to Socratic teaching and who also taught me a lot, through his example, about public speaking. In addition to his gut-wrenching use of Socratic dialogue, Adams also was a great lecturer.

When I took my first position in the Department of Economics at the University of Virginia, I met Professor William Breit. He became a dear friend and co-author. In addition, right from the get-go, Bill was someone with whom I could share ideas about teaching, and he kept me from making many mistakes. He encouraged me to be a good teacher in an environment where research output seemed to be the coin of the realm. Breit never thought one’s academic life had to be divided into either research or teaching, but you strived to do well at both.

» Sometimes unexpected things happen in the classroom. What are your two or three most memorable classroom experiences?

I am a control freak and so I do not welcome unexpected events in my classroom. But they occur: the overhead projector bulb goes out, the microphone doesn't work, there is a power outage in the building. If you teach long enough, these things happen to everybody. But here's something that comes to mind out of the ordinary. Because I use an overhead projector, occasionally a fly (drawn by the light) will land on the glass. Students focus on the magnified movements of the fly. Now, instead of brushing the fly away, I ask the students to be very, very quiet. I then explain that I am training this particular fly to substitute for my pointer, and the fly is supposed to show the way to equilibrium. The fly never quite makes it to equilibrium, and I blame the students, telling them that their laughing made the fly nervous and unable to perform what I had trained the fly to do before class.

» What do you think we should be trying to do in the introductory course at the college level? What are the most important things we should try to get across to students?

I am persuaded that there are basic principles that need to be taught and gone over again, as opposed to making the principles course an effort to teach all the material found in most textbooks. I focus on teaching micro principles, so I try to teach what Adam Smith called the "obvious and simple system of natural liberty." Of course, this never seems that obvious and simple to many students. But I put my focus on gains from trade, opportunity cost, how markets clear, and the unexpected consequences of central control in resource allocation. Particular tools and concepts that I want students to master are demand and supply, elasticity, and equilibrium, since these are all used both inside and outside the discipline of economics.

» What are one or two of your favorite topics that you look forward to covering in your class? Why are they favorites?

I like to teach opportunity cost because this is the real meat-and-potatoes concept in economics that good students remember. I also enjoy teaching the law of diminishing marginal utility. I show students that much of their behavior is consistent with utility maximization even though they may never have heard the expression and may have thought their behavior is random or impulsive.

» What are some of your favorite activities or stories that you use to get concepts across to students?

I like to use Jesus' parable of the lost sheep to teach the law of diminishing marginal utility (though I find fewer and fewer students know the Bible, even as literature). In this parable, a shepherd has 99 sheep safely in the fold, but ventures out to find one lost sheep. Upon finding this lost sheep, the shepherd (from the standpoint of economic analysis), rejoices more over this lost sheep than the 99 safely in the fold. Teaching by counter-example can be memorable. It forces students to think: is this parable really contrary to the law of diminishing marginal utility. Of course, Jesus often taught this way: He would begin: "You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you . . . ." And much of economics is that way: "You have heard or read that the world works this way, but economic analysis says . . . ."

To get across the concept of opportunity cost, I like to use the example of a highly paid attorney traveling by plane and a lower-paid farmhand traveling by bus. Given the opportunity cost of their respective time, the attorney travels by air because she cannot afford to travel by bus, not because she is richer than the farmhand.

» If there were just one or two things that you want your students to remember about economics five or ten years after taking your course, what would they be? How does that affect your teaching?

I want them to remember that the cost of an activity is the highest valued opportunity foregone and that the economic way of thinking has applications not only in the world of business, but beyond.

So I hope they would understand, if they put money under the mattress for safekeeping, that money has a cost in terms of investment opportunities foregone; that going to a movie costs more than the ticket price if they impute some nontrivial value to their time; that if someone gives them a valuable asset (say a work of art) that they enjoy, that there is a cost to owning the art (even though it is a gift), that they can estimate what that cost is (and still enjoy the art!).

» What do you think is the biggest misconception beginning students and others have about economics? Are there points that you figure students do not understand that you take extra care to explain carefully?

The four biggest misconceptions I face (and I think they are more prominent today than twenty years ago) are: (1) that the purpose of studying economics is to make money in the stock market or to somehow get rich; (2) that economic wealth can somehow be manufactured or produced by government mandate; (3) (believe it or not) that people in the U.S. were generally wealthier in the 1950s and 1960s than they are today; and (4) that environmental conditions in the U.S. are worse today than they were in the 1950s or 1960s.

» Beginning with Adam Smith, economics has focused on how and why people prosper. How do you discuss this topic with your students?

I do not discuss it to my satisfaction. Like most economists, I do not do enough with the entrepreneur (though I do more than I did twenty years ago). I do not do enough with showing how institutions like private property and a legal system that provides for its protection contribute to prosperity. It is too easy to devote time to the graphical exposition of how markets equilibrate which leaves the process of wealth-creation partially masked.

» America is a prosperous nation. Do you think your students have any clue about why Americans have such high-income levels? Do they care about this topic?

My students have a clue, but often it is the wrong clue. Few understand how spontaneous coordination and market processes create wealth. Some are under the impression that America is wealthy because we exploited poorer countries; many, in some general way, associate wealth with hard work mixed with being lucky. Very few could explain that the opportunities afforded by free markets combined with the protection of property rights are often necessary conditions for the hard working and the "lucky" to prosper economically. Many students in economics would not know the term “human capital” when they begin the study of economics, but most students quickly pick up on the connection between getting an education and increasing one's human capital endowment. Since they are, by definition, getting an education, most students think that a high return on human capital (at least their own) would not entail exploitation of others.

» Have changes in technology influenced your teaching? If so, how?

Yes and no. I have resisted a move to PowerPoint. I hear, of some classes, that they involve "Death by PowerPoint." But not mine. I continue to use an overhead projector because in my large principles class, I must move to the center of the auditorium to use the overhead and this gets me away from the lectern that is to the side. If I used PowerPoint, I fear my presentation of the material would become too slick, and I would remain even more wedded to the side of the auditorium.

I have been grateful for the improvements in audio technology that have made wireless microphones possible, and for a much better speaker system than existed 30 years ago.

» Using the wonderful pen name of Marshall Jevons, you are the co-author of Murder at the Margin and two other economic mysteries. Others have found these materials to be an effective method to attract student interest and drive home the meaning of various concepts. How do you use these materials in your classes?

Of the three mysteries, my favorite is The Fatal Equilibrium. I assign this Ballantine paperback as supplemental reading about a third of the way into the course. Many students find it a welcome respite from the text, not just because it is a novel, but because the hero (Professor Henry Spearman, a thinly disguised Milton Friedman) uses economic analysis to solve the crime. In reading the novel, the students realize that some of the theories and concepts and vocabulary of the hero, they understand. Some of my teaching assistants ask their students to write a brief paper on how one economic theory or principle was used in the book. I usually include one or two multiple-choice questions on the final that are drawn from the book. The response to the novels has been very positive, not only at the college level. A number of high schools use one of the novels in courses with AP credit.

» Quality teaching often goes un-rewarded at many colleges and universities. What advice would you give to a young assistant professor just beginning his or her professional career?

The world has changed, at least at my institution. When I first began my teaching career, the debate among assistant professors was whether good teaching was "neutral" or whether it was "held against you" in the tenure decision. I think Derek Bok at Harvard deserves a lot of credit for nudging research universities to give positive weight to teaching performance. Today, I think that genuinely bad teaching is a hindrance to receiving tenure, and winning a teaching award is no longer "a kiss of death." But beyond institutional rewards, I would advise assistant professors to teach well, if only for the joy of the experience, and for the satisfaction derived from seeing some students "click" with the discipline to which we are devoted.

» Does one have to be a good scholar in order to be a good teacher? What is the relationship between good teaching and active involvement in research?

No, one doesn't have to be a "good scholar" to be a good teacher, if "good scholar" is defined as actively publishing scholarly books and articles. I can't speak for all disciplines, but the field of economics is full of people who are wonderful teachers, who are deeply influential in the lives of their students, but who rarely if ever appear in print. A good teacher needs to be a good scholar only in the sense of keeping on top of his or her discipline and regularly looking for new insights into how the discipline functions and can be taught.

» Suppose one wanted to become a great teacher. What advice would you give to a young person on how to achieve this objective?

My counsel would run along three lines. First, track a good teacher (note I did not say mimic) and figure out what it is that makes that teacher talented and different. Second, keep teaching files with ideas about teaching, much the way many professors keep research files. That is, be as organized about improving your teaching as you are about your research. Third, attend teaching conferences and subscribe to a periodical about teaching. I subscribe to "The Teaching Professor." In addition, talk with colleagues about teaching.

» What do you consider to be your greatest teaching success? Your greatest failure?

Coming up with the greatest success is hard. It may be that, as teachers, we don't know what our greatest success stories are. In any event, I'll call my greatest success a young woman named Andrea, who was initially tongue-tied in a class I taught Socratically. It was very difficult for her to speak in front of the class. I asked her to come to my office one afternoon and we secretly worked on Socratic dialogue in my office. She then improved in class markedly. Today she is a talk show host on a major 50,000 watt radio station and is far more eloquent with words than I ever will be.

My greatest failure is that I have not taken my introductory economics course and adequately shown how economics connects with and influences other disciplines such as law, political science, sociology, and psychology.

» If you could choose only one course to teach, what would it be and how would you structure it?

That question is an easy one. The answer is what I do now; teach an upper-level undergraduate course in Antitrust Policy. I would teach it Socratically as I now do, which requires daily preparation for the class. I would continue to assign a designated note-taker so the other students can concentrate fully on the class discussion. I would put all the grade on the final exam and term paper (no mid-term) so students going to graduate school can get used to this method of assessment.

» What do you want your teaching epitaph to say?

I have never given that any thought. And I'm not sure I would want my epitaph to be about my teaching. I was once asked to write out my teaching philosophy. It wouldn't fit on a tombstone, but a part of it indicates what I want my teaching to be about. Here is the relevant portion:

[arguably] the most prominent image or picture of the Christian faith is the crucifix. For me, as a teacher, it is the picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. . . . I endeavor to apply that picture to my teaching: if I want best to lead a class of students, I should be willing to serve them. My authority as a teacher is linked to my willingness to serve my students.