When Professor Ken Elzinga taught his first introduction to economics lecture at UVA, he was 26 years old, fresh out of his doctoral program at Michigan State. He felt sick to his stomach as he walked into Cabell Auditorium to face 700 students. There was no lectern in the auditorium, no blackboard, and he recalls wondering how he’d teach economics without drawing diagrams on a blackboard.
“I was afraid of goofing up in front of hundreds of people and looking like I didn’t know what I’m talking about,” he says with a grin.
He got through that lecture—and thousands more. Elzinga has taught more than 40,000 UVA students, more than any other professor at the school, in his ECON201 introductory lecture and in the smaller Socratic economics seminar he teaches each spring.
The venerable professor is known for his ability to make introductory economics appealing, not just for econ majors but for students of all disciplines, roping in references to Moby-Dick, Robert Frost, world religions, famous paintings and more. “I try to teach economics not as a theoretical apparatus, but a way of thinking about the world. It’s not just preparation for the next level of theory,” he says.
Elzinga wakes up at 4 each morning and arrives at his office in Monroe Hall by 5. Between prepping, teaching and grading, he does some of his own writing (he pens mystery novels under the name Marshall Jevons) and—his favorite—holds office hours, often spending 10 hours a week meeting with students, who will sometimes wait an hour or more to meet with him.
Teaching is a vocation Elzinga says he was called to in graduate school. He points to the small, framed painting hanging over his office door, of Christ washing the feet of a disciple. If he is to live as Christ did, he says, he must serve; teaching is his service. “It’s deeply foundational in terms of what I do.”
Plus, the academic environment keeps him on his toes. Every semester is a different group of students; each lecture is a different concept. It keeps things exciting, he says. “I still get nervous before I go in to teach.”