“I think students need to be doing economics, so it’s not me telling them stories or showing them graphs,” says Gail Heyne Hafer (right). Hafer is an economics professor at St. Louis Community College-Meramec and author of two children’s books about economics. She talks with Mary Suiter, assistant vice president and economic education officer at the St. Louis Fed, about how students and teaching have changed during her three decades of teaching economics.
This 20-minute podcast was released Sept. 19, 2018.
Mary Suiter: I’m Mary Suiter, and you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics audio channel. I’m here today with Gail Heyne Hafer, professor of economics, at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. Hi, Gail.
Gail Heyne Hafer: Hi, Mary.
Suiter: Thanks for being with us today.
Heyne Hafer: You’re certainly welcome.
Suiter: I thought I’d start off by just asking you how or why did you decide on economics as your field?
Heyne Hafer: I’m one of those people that got there in the less direct route. I went to college thinking I was going to either major in English or be a journalism major. Writing was really what I thought I wanted to do. And in a journalism course, the professor said, you know, “It’s that—one of those times in your life where if you want a job, you need to economics and accounting. So, you all need to take econ and accounting courses,” and I did, and that was the end of journalism.
Suiter: What about those economics courses caused you to give up your career in journalism?
Heyne Hafer: Part of what it was really and truly, there was a professor that made economics seem really, really exciting. His name was Robert Baker. He spent the first few minutes of every class smoking a cigarette and telling jokes. And, then did economics in a way that was very mathematical, and I was one of those people who really liked math. And so, even in our principles course, lots of equations, a little bit of calculus. And I think it was that idea that I could use the math that I’d always liked and do something else with it than to go into the hard sciences. And so, that was really attractive to me.
Suiter: What are some of your most memorable successes in your career in economics?
Heyne Hafer: Well, years ago, my sister and I wrote a couple of little books for children that were to introduce first and second graders to economics. And I really think of all the things I’ve ever done that might have been the most fulfilling thing. Because it was so different than anything else I’d ever done.
I’d taught college students or, you know, a little bit of, older adults and some high school students, but mostly college-age students. And to think about how you redesign those topics to be able to teach them to 6- and 7-year-olds who don’t have the vocabulary and don’t have the attention span, but for whom knowing some of those really basic lessons—like what opportunity cost is and why we face trade-offs—could be really valuable down the road, that probably was the biggest, most wonderful thing I ever did in economics.
Suiter: Yeah, that’s great. So, in the stories and curriculum you wrote for the young children, what kinds of economic concepts did you include?
Heyne Hafer: Well, when we think about the concepts that students learn in the principles of micro class, mostly the same concepts, just a little more simplistic. So, we looked at scarcity, and we looked at opportunity costs and we looked at defining terms like “resources,” and dividing resources into things that were human capital and things that were physical capital. But we also asked them to look at budget constraints. They had to buy things to decorate a gingerbread man, and so they had to look at a budget constraint and the trade-offs that they faced when they were decorating their gingerbread man. I think, really introducing most of the topics that would go into a basic micro course—before, of course, you get to the markets discussion, just the introductory stuff. When I think back about that, what we did, it is interesting to me to recognize that we taught them everything that you and I would teach a freshman.
Suiter: Yeah, and it was great.
Heyne Hafer: Thank you.
Suiter: It was a great curriculum, and really fun for the kids. So, those are your successes, or that’s one of your really important successes. What about challenges that you’ve faced as a woman in economics?
Heyne Hafer: The first challenge that I was really aware of—because I went to a really small undergraduate school where the number of women in economics and the number of men in economics, or in business in general, was about the same, and so it felt, very equal, no biases. But when I got to graduate school, there were 36 students in my class, two of whom were women and there were no women on the faculty. And for the first time, I really had that experience of knowing that people were saying, “Oh, you’re just getting by because you’re a woman.” And I was really fortunate because there was one professor on the faculty whose wife taught in the architecture department and she sort of adopted me, and her name was Bonnie Ott, and she played racquetball with me a couple of days a week and listened to me whine and really helped me find a place during that time period. It would have been very difficult to be a student in that program without somebody like that to fall back on, just to know you had a resource.
Suiter: And when you were in graduate school, what was your, topic for your dissertation? What was your field of interest at that time?
Heyne Hafer: I studied monetary theory and industrial organization. And probably took most of the courses you would have needed for a public finance and econometrics specialization but declared just those two because you didn’t want to take more than two prelims. Then I wrote a dissertation in applied finance because I wasn’t finished when I left.
The professor who had been my major advisor left Virginia Tech after that, and so I really floundered for a while. I had a really theoretical dissertation. I was really struggling to find the data. And then I went to work for an engineering firm, and that engineering firm had some things that sort of applied finance area that is industrial organization that were interesting to me. And so, I changed topics and got a new advisor and really wrote in applied finance. I looked at how capital markets treat utility companies with different customer mixes.
Suiter: Is that still an interest of yours or have you moved on to other topics that you’re interested in?
Heyne Hafer: I think that when I went back to teaching—So, I worked for the engineering firm for almost nine years. And when I decided that it was time to try to have a full-time teaching position again. Engineering firms can be a little non-challenging. You do the same thing over and over and over. And so, I really became one of those people who cared more about how we teach and the kinds of things we could do to make teaching better rather than doing research that was really focused on economics. I did some things with my husband, Rick, that were economic things. We looked, for instance, at how education affects Missouri counties recently. But most of the things I’ve done have really focused on, “How do we teach and how do we do that better?”
Suiter: So, what do you think are important things to do in a classroom to make economics more interesting?
Heyne Hafer: I think students need to be doing economics. So, it’s not me telling them stories or showing them graphs. It’s really me asking them, you know, “Calculate some elasticities and tell me what you think will happen in these markets because the elasticities are the way they are.” Or “Look at this set of market circumstances and tell me what kind of market structure that is and what that’s going to mean when you go off to be the marketing manager for your firm and have to think about what kinds of pricing decisions can be made?” I think more than anything else I want them to practice economics. My students do a lot of small group work, and I try not to lecture very much so that they’re as much a part of the class activity for the day as I am.
Suiter: That’s great. What would you tell young women who are considering economics as a major? Or do you talk with young women in your classes about that?
Heyne Hafer: The business program at the community college still is predominantly men. There aren’t as many women. But I teach an entry-level course, the one semester introduction course that nursing students have to take. And so, I do spend a lot of time talking about economics to get them to understand that they’re taking economics in preparation for nursing. Because learning about trade-offs and learning to look at data and learning to do critical thinking are part of what they’re going to do as nurses if they’re successful.
But I don’t get as many students in the, regular economics, the micro and macro courses. And I think the ones I do are mostly accounting majors because they’ve been told there’s a definable job at the end of that. I don’t necessarily talk to the women as much as I talk to all of them about the fact that economics lets them move beyond being entry-level accountants into other parts of a business, that they’ll understand things that accounting won’t teach them and be prepared to move on to something entirely new. And that when we look at where jobs are, an awful lot of those jobs list economics as a possible training background, and that it’s not limiting. They should do more of it.
Suiter: Well, I agree. So, when you’re talking to students, and you already mentioned that you enjoyed the work with young children learning economics. Why is it important for non-economists to understand the economy?
Heyne Hafer: Well, the obvious reason, because they’re going to vote. [laughs] And I want them to be informed voters, and I want them to be able to look at economic data at the most basic level and say, “There’s more to this story.”
So, one of the, the best examples I think is always that the newspaper reports on the first Friday of every month what the unemployment rate is. And I want my students to say, “Well, that’s the U3 unemployment rate, but what happened to U6?” And, you know, “What happened to the participation rate? And is that really across all sectors of the economy, or is there some chunk of the population that’s being left out?”
I do want them to listen to the news and to be astute enough to ask questions. I think that’s the thing that I hope comes out of it more than anything else is that by taking economics, they ask better questions and they don’t just take things at face value. And while most of them will not go on to be econ majors, many of them will do political science, or they’ll do history, or they’ll do some part of liberal arts that involves philosophy, for instance, where there are lots of overlaps with economics.
And I think I try to make them see those overlaps—that my students do a little bit of economic history, just so that I can make them understand that those people that we claim in economics, sociology claims and history claims and philosophy claims, and sometimes math claims and that we are not an isolated discipline and that we have a lot of relationships with all those others.
Suiter: I think that’s a great thing for them to understand as they’re choosing a major, but I also like the, notion of them being informed about the voting choices they make. I agree with you. Gail, how long have you been teaching economics? And how has your teaching changed over time? Has the discipline changed over time? And what kinds of changes have you seen in the students that you teach?
Heyne Hafer: I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years. And there have been dramatic changes in the discipline. I did my first full-time stint of teaching at UMSL. I was a sabbatical replacement for a year, and we lectured. That was all we did, and it was the model that I’d been taught. I think it was what almost everyone I was teaching with did. And it was reasonably effective for a certain group of students. They were people who liked school. And so, that would have been in 1980. And by the time I went back to teaching full time, it was 1990.
And students had changed because I think high schools had changed somewhat. There was a lot more pressure on high schools to get students through. And so, students didn’t always come to college as prepared to be students. They had the knowledge base, but they hadn’t learned to study in the same way that we learned to study in high school because we were much more on our own. And so, part of teaching became helping them to learn to be better students, and part of helping them learn to be better students was helping them understand that we weren’t just going to lecture.
So, I was really fortunate, because, IAFFE (International Association for Feminist Economics), the feminist economics organization, did a bunch of workshops in the early 1990s that I was lucky enough to go. The teaching innovation project was something I was a part of. So those were people who were really working very hard to get people to step away from the chalkboard and to make their students more active in the classroom, and I think that’s the biggest way that teaching has changed for me is that there isn’t very much lecture, and there is a lot of, “Here’s an idea. You figure something out and then we’ll talk about what it means,” so then asking them to do some exploration.
And I think the place in which I’ve been the luckiest because of the introduction of computers and because of FRED, of course, is that my students can have data now so that I can give them pieces of information and say to them, “You know, a bus token cost 50 cents in 1980. What would it have to cost today in the U.S., Zimbabwe and Japan?” And let them see what it means to have the kind of inflation that Zimbabwe had and that a, a 50-cent bus token would have to cost, you know, $18 million dollars. And “How does an economy cope with that?” So, those are the kinds of things. The availability of data makes it possible for students today that we couldn’t have done even if we’d thought to do it 30 years ago.
Suiter: Are there games or experiments that you do with your students?
Heyne Hafer: For instance, my students in the intro class are going to make a commitment to bring canned food on Friday. And the payoff for bringing the canned food is a little oligopoly game. Because everybody gets four points if the average class commitment is 10 cans and nobody bids zero. But as soon as somebody bids zero, the rules change, and that person gets a huge payoff, and everybody else gets less. And then, if too many people bid zero, then nobody gets anything.
Suiter: That makes it so exciting for the students, I would think, rather than the lecture and a PowerPoint or whatever.
Heyne Hafer: Well, and it makes it very exciting for the campus food pantry. Because, you know, there’s 20 students. It’s potentially—
Suiter: That’s a lot.
Heyne Hafer: … 200 or more cans of food. So that’s a big influx of food.
Suiter: It’s a payoff. Yeah. That’s great. So, I’m going to back up a minute here and ask about your mentors. You mentioned the woman who was in the architecture college. What other mentors did you have in your career who helped you?
Heyne Hafer: I think I was exceptionally lucky. In graduate school, everybody wanted to be a research assistant, and the women were assigned to be teaching assistants. And, you know, in, some ways that was really unfortunate, because there were opportunities that I missed. But I worked for a man in graduate school, Allan Mandelstamm, who taught 1,500 students each quarter, 4,500 seats a year, and he didn’t lose very many. And I learned about classroom management and about choosing books and giving tests and about time management. That man was a mentor. And he also taught me a lot because there were 13 of us about how you manage the group of people that work for you. So that at the point when I became a department chair, I had this experience with understanding how I needed to really build a team and feed them, because—His wife was a really good cook and he fed us often.
I also had an uncle who was an economist who was very good about sitting me down occasionally and saying, “Think about these things.” So, Paul Heyne taught at the University of Washington, and like Allan Mandelstamm, taught giant classes. And I was never going to be the person who did that. But Paul spent a lot of time, again, talking about feeding your students. He gave out a lot of cookies, apparently.
But also, about when they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, how do you handle that situation? How do you make sure that the questions are always time relevant, and it’s made me a really hardcore newspaper reader because I need a new situation every week—so that they don’t get bored with it, so they see relevance, so that I don’t get bored with it, too. And then, when I came to the community college, I was extraordinarily lucky.
I had an office mate named Dan Cobb, who was really nearing the end of his career. He’d been at the community college since the, the mid ’70s. And he believed it was his job to teach us to be effective community college faculty members. And that didn’t just mean what you did in the classroom. It meant what you did as a member of the broader communities. So, he helped us pick out committees that we were going to join. He helped us meet people. He really eased us into that broader effort of being involved in lots of things, which meant that you met people from throughout the district, which is hard in a three-campus system that you got opportunities because people knew you and that you’ve felt a part of the community. And that has really been important to me as I’ve continued on, is to, to follow the lead that he provided, and to say, “It’s my job to help these people learn,” and to be, an active faculty member even at the end of my career and to show them that this is worthwhile doing, that there’s still a lot of gratification in being an active faculty member even 20 years down the road.
Suiter: And so, you mentor younger faculty members now in that same fashion?
Heyne Hafer: Yes, and, really consciously do it. You know, sitting down with people once a semester and saying, “You know, these are the things that are happening, and these are the things that you need to think about doing as you move forward and you want to be promoted or you want a sabbatical.” And the four people that are the econ faculty on our department actually still get together once a month and say, “What are our goals individually? What are our goals as a foursome? And how do we support one another to make sure those things happen?” That’s a piece of being a mentor that always makes work a little bit more joyful. I mean, obviously, we eat good food when we have these conversations. But it’s also really nice to be supportive and to support other people and have them be successful.
Suiter: So, I want to back up for a second. Your uncle was an economist?
Heyne Hafer: Yes.
Suiter: He had to have been thrilled, right, to have you choose economics?
Heyne Hafer: I think so. And, I was the only one, really, who did. So, of his five children and my dad’s three and there are eight other cousins on that side of the family, I’m the only one that really did economics, and so—yeah.
Suiter: So, continued the tradition?
Heyne Hafer: I continued the tradition.
Suiter: That’s great. Well, I really appreciate you being with us today and taking the time to talk about economics and particularly women in economics. I hope that you’ll, listen to some of our podcasts and that we’ll have lots of folks listening to yours. To hear more about women in economics, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That's one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. Thanks, Gail.
Heyne Hafer: Thank you.