Monday, 7 February 2011

"Now I get it!"

Economics is one of the academic pillars at SAIS. We wrote about this in December and have come back to it from time to time. All SAIS students take economics as part of their course of study; understanding of economics is essential for anyone wishing to play a leadership role in the international arena.

Today our guest blogger is Çiğdem Akin, an assistant professor who this year is teaching Macroeconomics and International Monetary Theory. Prof. Akin received her Ph.D from George Washington University, her master's from the International University of Japan and her undergraduate degree from Bogaziçi University in Turkey. She has worked at both the IMF and the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo.

Economics is not a simple field of study. It requires logic, an ability to grasp abstract problems and the capability to simplify real issues and to isolate key concepts. Because economics is analytical in nature, it can be a difficult subject to teach and learn.

Over the many semesters that I have been a professor of macroeconomics and international monetary theory, I have often encountered students professing at the beginning that they are "not an economics person" or even that they "hate economics".

Slope is no issue for
 Çiğdem Akin
Yet they are willing to confront "the economics monster" at SAIS because they know that rigorous economics training is one of the unique characteristics that sets SAIS apart from other graduate programs in international affairs.

As a teacher, I face the challenge of converting a room full of students from varying academic backgrounds and with different levels of enthusiasm and confidence into a collection of people who can reflect positively on their economics education at SAIS.

So how do I approach teaching economics at SAIS?

First, combining theoretical concepts with real-life examples and policies has helped me keep the class materials relevant to students at SAIS.

For example, in the Macroeconomics course this past semester I used the subprime mortgage market crises in the United States as a case study.

Using cross-country comparisons, our students applied theoretical economic models and analyzed a wide range of topics: the functioning of financial markets; patterns of international interdependency; governments' fiscal policies and their implications for debt sustainability; deflation; monetary policies such as quantitative easing, and unemployment in the context of the current global recession.

Light reading for Prof. Akin
In the coming semester, students will deepen their understanding of open economies in the International Monetary Theory course. They will write research papers on the recent debt crises in the euro zone; the emergence of BRIC economies; the changing pattern of global economic balance of power, and the implications for growth of global financial integration.

The students will conduct hands-on research using macroeconomic data, read academic or policy-oriented research papers from the IMF and follow current policy debates through publications such as the Wall Street Journal or the Economist.

When students integrate theory into their own experiences, they gain the intuition, inter-disciplinary skills, critical thinking and curiosity to understand economic problems.

Learning is a cooperative experience at SAIS. A crucial component of teaching economics at SAIS is to encourage our students to work in study groups for assignments and problem sets. Students from diverse backgrounds learn to cooperate, apply their analytical and quantitative skills, manage their time and use available resources to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

At SAIS, we take pride in one-on-one education. I make myself available for students after class and often outside of office hours. Students appreciate this supportive and welcoming attitude and overcome any initial fear of economics.

I am always full of pride when a student I am helping tells me, “Now I get it!” 

Students appreciate the relevance and the strength of our economics training when they apply for internships or jobs in international finance, public policy, business or economic development in the public or private sector. During summer vacation, many of my former students have sent me thank you letters indicating that what they learned in economics helped them succeed in positions with organizations as diverse as the U.S. Treasury, an investment bank in London or an NGO working to alleviate poverty in Latin America.

At the end of the day, making a difference in the lives of generations of students by expanding their understanding of global issues and helping them become better world citizens is what makes teaching economics so rewarding at SAIS.