Flamboyance, character and a little rock ‘n roll

Posted on Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Author: Mike Foster

David Gray

Economics can sometimes be a dry topic — but not if it’s taught by Professor David Gray. He sings rock and pop lyrics, runs around the classroom, makes references to Madonna and The Rolling Stones and shares anecdotes from his own colourful past.

“Flamboyance is the dominant motif in my teaching,” says Gray, who was one of 10 finalists in TVO’s Best Lecturer 2010 competition and winner of the University of Ottawa’s 2010-2011 Excellence in Teaching Award for Social Sciences. He says he’s a big believer in the power of lessons with character and personality.

“Being innovative doesn’t have to mean highly technical gadgets. There is no substitute for actually caring about the welfare of students and being innovative by being yourself,” he says.

“Sometimes I evoke rock songs and sometimes I tell stories from my personal past, sometimes true and occasionally made up,” says Gray. After 28 years of teaching, he continues to come up with new material that makes courses like Introduction to Microeconomics, Introduction to Macroeconomics, Probability and Statistics for Economists and Introduction to Econometrics so popular among students.

To drive a lesson home about the law of diminishing marginal utility, for example, he draws an analogy with drinking too many gin and tonics at a Bahama Boogie Party when he was a student at Kalamazoo College, Michigan, in the summer of 1980.

“When I drank the first one I thoroughly enjoyed it and it made me better off. Ditto for the second one,” says Gray. “By the time that I drank the fifth one, yes I was better off, but the increment of my well-being was not nearly as high as when I had drunk the first one. By the time I drank the sixth or the seventh I was no better off than I had been right before I had consumed it, so on the margin, the addition to my satisfaction was zero. I had reached the consumer satiation point. I actually had negative marginal utility, meaning I was worse off. Would you folks care to witness a dramatization of that sorry spectacle? (pretends to vomit) That is what I call negative marginal utility!”

“The idea is that after a very low consumption level has been reached, additional units consumed by the consumer yield less and less additional satisfaction,” he adds. Certainly, students are unlikely to forget the sight of their professor fake puking.

Likewise, in explaining the nature of “Homo economicus” (economic humans) he says, “There is no better authority on the central tenet of microeconomics than Madonna. ‘We are living in a material world’ and I am a material guy, but so is everyone. We are all greedy.”

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gray received his PhD in economics from the University of Michigan. He says he became a francophile when he studied for six months in France. He was thrilled to be recruited by uOttawa in 1990. His research interests include labour economics, labour economic policy (especially unemployment insurance and programs for displaced workers) and the economics of health care. Books he has authored include the Instructor’s Manual to Accompany Labour Market Economics, numerous chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals.

So with falling oil prices and interest rates, what are Gray’s words of advice to young people?

“I tell them that despite the uncertainty, their future is bright. These are not the best of times but they are certainly not the worst of times either. Even if they don’t hit the ground running when they graduate, overall they will do well.”

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