Whether creating an in-class "factory" that manufactures peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or exploring how Peru cornered the organic fertilizer market in the nineteenth century, Kenyon economics professors are known for taking the road less traveled in their teaching methods.
Alys Spensley, a junior from Minneapolis, Minnesota, thinks such offbeat examples enliven the teaching of economic theories that often are perceived as dull and difficult to grasp. Take the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich factory, she says. Associate Professor of Economics William R. Melick supplied her and her classmates one knife, a couple of jars of peanut butter and jelly, and about ten loaves of bread. The goal was to illustrate the economic principle of diminishing returns by making the sandwiches.
"Things went okay with one worker," recalls Spensley. "With two, things sped up wonderfully. With three workers, the sandwiches were made efficiently and quickly. However, by the time we got to four, five, or six workers, things were not as pretty. In fact, our production with three workers was better than with six."
Thus, an economic lesson was learned. "And the best part of the story was that we had PB&J sandwiches for lunch," remembers a smiling Spensley.
Melick says the principle of diminishing returns has many implications for economists, but he observes that "seeing that link can be a little tricky for students." So Melick, who is completing his second year of teaching at the College, borrowed the PB&J factory idea from Jim Keeler, an economics professor at Kenyon since 1984. "There are so many great teachers at the College," says Melick. "It's a challenge for me to measure up."
Spensley and other students believe Melick is up to the challenge. They benefit from his experiences as an economist with the Federal Reserve, where he worked for eleven years before accepting his appointment at Kenyon. Melick was an international-finance expert who, in recent years, provided weekly briefings on foreign currency exchange markets to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Fed's Board of Governors.
In the classroom, Melick encourages students to take much the same approach to their work as he did at the Fed. They study financial data, much of it gleaned from the Internet, to see if the predictions made by economic models hold true. The key for students, he explains, is to translate a real-life situation into an economic model. "Economics is a bit like mathematics or physics — the key is to know how to set up the problem," says Melick. "Once the translation is made, the actual manipulation of the equation is not all that bad."
The lessons learned in an economics class also have value in a number of other areas of study, according to Brendan Rogers, a junior from Dallas, Texas, who is majoring in economics. "For example, the study of economics adds insight to the common debate over the relative merits of capitalism and socialism encountered in political science," he says. "Also, economic reasoning is particularly useful in English classes. ... The economic approach to Lear sheds light on the morality of Shakespeare's tragic character."
Spensley, an international-studies major, saw economic principles illuminated in her study of imperialism, as well as in her work on the development of political systems. "Courses in anthropology and history also tied into the things I was learning in my economics class," she points out.
Such connections are regularly made in the College's interdisciplinary approach to education, according to Himmelright Associate Professor of Economics David Harrington. "Economics is a tool for under-standing policies that people care about," he says.
As an example, he cites a classroom discussion about an inner-city hospital that could not afford to provide a powerful cancer-fighting drug to its patients. The pharmaceutical company's patent gave it a monopoly on the drug, enabling it to charge a high price that covered development costs and provided a profit to the company's investors. "It became a horror to the students that a company's prices are above the cost of producing something that saves people's lives," says Harrington.
Not all of Harrington's classroom examples are quite that serious. After all, this is a scholar who has studied the economic implications of vanity license plates and cremation, as well as more mainstream subjects such as the taxation of Social Security benefits and the demand for housing.
"I use quirky examples in my classes to dispel the notion that economics is just about dry business topics — to show that it's not just about making widgets," notes Harrington. "We focus on teaching economic reasoning skills, which are particularly valid in business."
A member of the Kenyon faculty since 1986, Harrington has seen a number of his students move on to the country's top graduate schools of business, including those at Harvard and Stanford universities and the University of Chicago. The College's "econ" majors have also fared well in landing positions with Fortune 500 companies and top national management consulting firms, such as Andersen Consulting and McKinsey and Company.
The firms value the students' ability to communicate and defend their positions, a skill honed in the small classes and seminars that are an integral part of a Kenyon education. The College "fosters enough competition to make students work hard, but in a nurturing environment where they are still able to work with each other," says Harrington.
"The changing nature of labor-market economics makes the value of a liberal-arts education extremely high," he says. "Agile, flexible minds are likely to be even more highly rewarded in the future, and that places Kenyon graduates in an advantageous position."
Image: Melick (left) and Harrington (right) with Brendan Rogers.