I am a most careful shopper, and I must be if I want to live a material life that would otherwise be out of my financial reach. While we hide it well, Becky and I have Williams-Sonoma tastes, but a Walmart budget.
Becky and I like to travel to beautiful and fascinating places where we can, for a time, live a pampered life surrounded by people who care for our every need. For one week there are no meals to cook, beds to make or lawns to mow. For seven days we become people of leisure.
I absolutely love working with the newest, cutting-edge technologies, and even though I’m married to someone who will walk up to the TV to turn it on, I’ve been a very early adopter of such technologies as satellite TV, Tivo and smartphones. Lately we’ve been venturing into smart-home technologies with lights that respond to our voice commands.
These pursuits are very expensive, but thanks to the Depression era DNA I inherited from my father, I have developed into an extraordinarily good bargain hunter, albeit a very cautious one. Gambling is not in my nature, so I am careful with the choices I make, even, ironically enough, when I am planning a vacation to Las Vegas.
Economists say that we make most choices by looking at the world through what is known as the economic perspective. That is, we make decisions by comparing the costs of a choice with its anticipated benefits. We seek choices that minimize our costs, but maximize our benefits. People instinctively do this when they shop for clothes, pick a restaurant for dinner, or choose a cell phone plan.
While those are financial choices, most economic decisions do not directly involve money. As a teacher I regularly get offers for “free” steak dinners at Saltgrass Steakhouse where expert financial planners will “share” with me a number of retirement investment options. While Saltgrass is among my favorite restaurants, no steak is tender or flavorful enough for me to give up 2 hours of my life to a sales pitch.
Because I knew I was going to be spending a minimum of 3 hours a week for 18 weeks with them, I was obsessively picky about the professors I chose in college. I was determined to do everything I could to make the best choices from the options available. An economist would say that, in doing that, I was being a rational maximizer.
Long before the internet made it easy to post reviews of dog spas, prisons, or even public restrooms, teacher appraisals were passed on by word of mouth. I tried to learn as much as I could about professors before I’d sign up for their classes, but my decisions were largely guided by the answer to one question: Is this teacher a genuine human being or just a kind of scholastic cyborg behind the thinnest veneer of humanity?
Sometimes everything I could find out about the professors teaching a course warned me to avoid them like the Ebola virus. In those cases, I’d throw the dice and take a class that was to be taught by “staff,” which is how the college referred to part-time adjunct instructors. My system proved to be golden, at least until the last few months of my college career.
My last semester I ended up in a literature class taught by a “staff” adjunct who talked fondly of Marxism and who droned on about how every story we read depicted the subjugation of women. (That experience proved an old casino maxim: If you keep throwing the dice long enough, they’ll eventually come up snake eyes.)
As a college student, I was looking for teachers who shared bits of their lives with their students. The stories these teachers shared were sometimes trivial or funny, but other times were extraordinary and poignant, but either way they let students see glimpses of their lives behind the academic curtain. Those teachers were real people to me and I always felt a connection to them, which in turn had a profound impact on level of engagement in the class.
Spending my college semesters with those teachers has had a lasting impact on my view of teaching.
One of my favorite cartoons is of two boys walking home from school. One boy looks at the other and says “You think your teacher is old? Mine teaches history from memory”
While I have not taught a history course in many years, I will readily admit to teaching economics from memory. For the past 37 years I have worked a variety of jobs, paid taxes, and shopped for a laundry list of things: insurance, vacations, home improvements, groceries, computers, and of course, the washers and dryers that do our laundry. These experiences are fertile ground for teaching basic economic principles. Sharing life experiences with my classes has punched holes in the wall that exists between me as a teacher and my students. What began in my classroom has, in many cases, resulted in long-lasting friendships with former students.
I’ve talked about my experiences shopping for cars, using credit card rewards and in the last semester paying for a wedding, but most of my life examples are about routine things like grocery shopping and going out to eat.
Health considerations are forcing me to punch holes in my traditional diet, and are making grocery shopping a more grim experience. They are also causing me to redefine what I consider a bargain. All topics to share with students next year.