My Teaching Philosophy

My approach to teaching has been shaped by my exposure to vastly different styles and systems of teaching. From the meticulous, fastidious rote learning of Singapore and England, to the relaxed, informal seminar style of Australia, to the intense, professional query-driven approach of America, I have learnt that learning can be effective in a multiplicity of ways, and there is no single “model answer” to how one can deliver knowledge and information.

When I teach, I try to instill students with the same intellectual curiosity that first made me interested in economics. To achieve this, I seek to challenge and excite them: By questioning their assumptions, by showing them empirical puzzles that seem to clash with conventional wisdom, by forcing them to venture possible hypotheses. For example, I began an international trade course by bringing to class a simple T-shirt, and asking them: “Where did this T-shirt come from?” After receiving standard guesses, I probe beyond the label, and ask them if that is the end of the story—and steer them toward asking about where its intermediate inputs came from, what intellectual properties may be embedded in the product, and why countries even bother to trade such a simple product, when they can easily manufacture it themselves. This sets the stage for many of the topics that we address later in the course, and I hope to make students feel that the quarter will be an intellectual adventure, where they discover the answer to these questions for themselves.

My teaching also seeks involvement. Such involvement goes beyond simply asking students questions in class. One strategy I employ is that of classroom experiments. In an environmental economics class, I conducted two experiments, one of which involved double-oral auctions of tradable CO2 pollution permits at national and international level. The experiments concretize otherwise abstract concepts and remind students that economic investigation can be methodical and scientific. Another strategy that I use is to construct problem sets that force students to apply the theories that they learn to real-world problems drawn from current newspapers, and occasionally using actual data from the Internet. The fact that there are no right or wrong answers in many of these cases drives home the difficulty of providing, and delivering, practical policy advice. This involvement, of course, works both ways: I endeavor to make myself available to students, especially weak ones. In an introductory statistics class, I had the pleasure of seeing a marginal student eventually score an A, after additional office hours after the midterm. In an intermediate microeconomics class, I received handwritten notes of thanks for my efforts. These are the moments that remind me of why I decided on the path of academia.

Finally, I seek to inspire students. In my introductory lecture for a development economics class, I spent half the class sketching out a day in the life of a family in a developed versus a developing country, constructed from anecdotes drawn from the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor series. I then suggested to students that the course could offer them the tools to potentially make a difference to the lives of Abu in Bangladesh, of Liudmila in Moldova, of Ayite in Ghana, and thousands of others like them. To this end, I also believe strongly in the need to accommodate diverse—and perhaps even controversial—viewpoints, contingent on respecting the integrity of truth in the scientific process. I will not shy from gently correcting students when they make claims that are not supported by empirical evidence. For example, in a course on the economies of East and Southeast Asia, I was unapologetic about discussing how “sweatshop” labor was an early driver of Asian economic development. Some of the most exciting questions in economics require the intellectual courage to challenge received wisdom.