Interview Insights: Dr Srinivasan Vasudevan

Professor Srinivasan Vasudevan is an Assistant Instructional Professor at the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics, University of Chicago. Dr Vasudevan received his Ph.D. in 2017 from the Department of Ag. and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his Master’s in Regional Planning from Cornell University. His primary research interests are development economics, political economy, and public economics. Dr Vasudevan has also briefly worked as a consultant for the Development Research Group, The World Bank. 

How has the experience of online teaching been for you over these last few months?

Personally, I really enjoyed online teaching and I think it went well. Zoom is very usable and has a wide range of tools that one can exploit. I think the remote classes made me organize my class in a different way and that benefited the class significantly. With online teaching, you have to pay a lot more attention to structuring lessons and modules. I might use some of the ideas from remote teaching when we’re back to in-person classes. Overall, I think everything one does remotely can be done in person, but not everything one does in person can be done remotely.

It is quite rightly said, “Life is a never ending learning process.” In all your years of providing education and teaching a plethora of students in this esteemed institution, what can you say that your students have taught you in return?

I would say there are these gems of students sometimes that pick up on an intuition or ask an insightful question and you get to learn a lot from them. But the courses I teach are really early and I haven’t yet taught a core topics course, which means that the students I teach are not that advanced yet in economics. So I cannot really say I learn a lot about subject matter. But what I do learn about is the role of pedagogy in how students learn effectively. Over the last couple of quarters that I have taught, it has become more and more clear to me that the single most important principle in effective teaching is teaching at the right level. This is a philosophy that I got exposed to by the work of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. To summarize their work: The sad reality is that some of even fourth or fifth grade students cannot write at a first or second grade level in India. Yet, the teachers continue to teach the syllabus for each year, and the students often feel “lost” and don’t learn anything. What Banerjee and Duflo find is, keeping the syllabus aside and going to the level of students irrespective of grade can often result in better learning outcomes. Grouping students in a school according to ability, and consequently teaching at that ability leads to much better outcomes than doing so by age. Applying that to a college setting is interesting. There are people of varying ability in a classroom and it is important to be able to teach everyone in a way that helps them learn. While it is important to target the average level of a class, it is also important to employ certain pedagogical tools for the struggling student and the high-achieving student. Therein lies the challenge. Learning how to employ these strategies has been very interesting for me!

Is there anything that you particularly dislike about your profession? Why?

As a junior person in the field, I would say the lack of diversity in this field might be an issue. We don’t have as many women, minorities, etc in economics. I of course speak about the US context, because that is the one I am more familiar with professionally. Even though there is a considerable international representation, there isn’t a lot of socioeconomic or domestic racial diversity. This can be done by creating certain pipelines from high school to college and then into graduate school. The second problem is more cultural – making it very hard to change: economics can be hostile and the environment, overall, can be intimidating to junior economists. Despite this, there are some small things that departments can do that might help. Before coming to the University of Chicago, I was at the World Bank. There was an interesting rule for job talks: no one was to ask questions during the first ten minutes of the presentation. So I think taking small steps like these may help in making the intellectual environment less hostile.

If you had the ability to go back in time, what advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?

Study computer science! Through high-school, I was a good student, and I scored good marks. But I did not have a clear picture of what I wanted to pursue. In retrospect, I don’t think there is anything that I can go back and tell myself that would change anything. I was just not mature enough to be able to use that advice. Choosing a career path is a process of introspection and trying different things. I would only really advise myself to try to keep an open mind and try different things. Take courses in different subject areas but also have strong employable skills. Career opportunities might be limited for certain majors and so forth. So one has to be strategic to kind of balance interests with what is ultimately going to get you a job and let you pursue your interests as well. I do think it is very important for everyone to learn how to code, which is very important in economics as well – especially if you are heading towards research!

If you had to choose an alternate career, what would it be?

I would probably say computer scientist!

What do you like to do for fun?

Baking: The last legitimate thing I baked was a baguette. I like how scientific and precise baking is!

What is the best book you would recommend?

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

How would you describe your teaching style in one word?

Socratic – I try to lead my students to the answers through a series of questions.

What other subjects do you like aside from Economics?

In terms of what I consume the most, it would be psychology and political science. I find both of those very approachable, and I am able to follow the research – because they use similar methods as economics. It seems easy to communicate with political scientists and psychologists. These subjects ask allied questions with economics. For instance, economists don’t ask where preferences come from whereas psychologists unpack that further.

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