The Oberlin Stories Project

On learning to stop worrying and love economics

San Maday Travis ’11

“We found ourselves struggling to fit tough questions into broad, vast subjects focused on a more traditional perspective... so we decided to create that space ourselves.”

A group of friends stands with arms around one another.

Economics was my worst class in high school. I went to a prestigious prep school where students were expected to apply a liberal number of AP classes to their transcript, so I took AP economics on a whim and expected it to be an easy, intuitive subject. Quite the contrary—I found the abstract organization of the subject unfriendly, its unilateral logic cold and unwelcoming to outside attitudes, and the separation of macro- and microeconomics frustrating and illogical. Moreover, economics class was a space where I felt questioning authority and thinking outside the box—two of my deepest values—were not welcome. I left the course frustrated, confused, and a little bit scared of exploring any further.

Fast-forward four years from then to today, and I’m an econ major working on a senior honors project, thriving and enjoying the beginnings of my career as an academic economist. My time at Oberlin has taken my previous understanding of economics and turned it inside out.

I entered Oberlin as a prospective environmental studies major interested in such large social science-type issues as access to public transportation, physical geographies as they relate to environmental and social well-being, and the ways that science and sociology intersect in real-life situations. Throughout my first year, I dabbled in different subjects but found nothing that matched my desire to unite mathematics and scientific logic with the broad subjects I was interested in tackling.

During my first semester second year, I took a class in environmental economics. Contrary to my previous experience, I found that an upper-level econ course engaged a whole new set of skills that was much more interesting to me than high school fare—how rational decisions play into resource use and climate change, or how urban sprawl could be modeled through intuitive, interactive mathematical models. I was hooked. I started the long journey to becoming an economics major with this new-found excitement in mind.

Over time, however, I found myself frustrated with the same recurring question—how can these models, which I have learned to love and understand so well, be applied reasonably to my understanding and study of class, race, and gender privilege? How can an economic analysis and a feminist analysis interact without one attempting to destroy the other? How can students find a space to question the one-sided authority of neoclassical economics within the framework of a traditional economics education?

Enter my friend Rachel Beck ’11—a fellow co-oper and economics major who asked many of the same questions and was looking for answers. We found ourselves having similar feelings in economics classes, struggling to fit tough questions into broad, vast subjects focused on a more traditional perspective. We decided to create that space ourselves. Together, we began a group focused on researching and discussing feminist economics, a branch of the field that uses both economic and feminist methodologies to try and analyze the world around us.

The discussion group meets biweekly for coffee and discussion focused loosely on one subject, but floating to various topics, ranging from department gossip to our favorite statistics software. We share books and resources that we’ve found especially useful to augment our understanding to include new perspectives on economics and the other social sciences. We communicate frequently with the head of the economics department to discuss future possibilities for curriculum changes, staffing decisions, and department events to meet the interests of some students in the major. Moreover, we found a space that feels comfortable and productive to discuss a subject that we all love, but struggle to enjoy when only given the master narrative.

Without this space to open my mind to new ideas, I never would have gotten up the excitement or courage to enter the honors program next year, nor would I be considering further economic work outside of Oberlin. My honors research will focus on the fair-trade movement in the coffee industry, a phenomenon with roots deep in issues of race, colonialism, and transnational free-trade politics. I’m excited about sharing my work with others in my field, especially with those who are interested in the intersections between academic fields that many consider unrelated or even at odds with one another. I love having the opportunity to bring people together and work on issues that are dear to all of our hearts—this was my learning, and relearning, of what a liberal arts education is really all about.