Teacher Talk is back! This time we had the honour to talk to Mr. Heij, assistant professor in statistics and econometrics at the Econometric Institute. Next to his research and lecturing activities, focused, on econometrics and on statistical research methods in economics and business, he is also the chairman of the educational board ("Opleidingscommissie") for econometrics and operations research.
What type of student were you?
When I was very young, I was not a very serious student. During primary school, I never did anything. That was, until I got a course in geography. Back in those days, we got a blank map and the teacher would point out a city or a river. I did not learn anything and I got my first insufficient grade and my parents were very disappointed. For most of primary school, however, I could manage without doing anything. The problems started, when I was in high school. But then, one day, there was a switch and I had to decide to start learning something. Then, when I actually started to do something, it became much more fun and I started to like school. From then on, I have been quite eager to learn, especially at university.
Can you tell us more about your later education?
At university, there was such a wealth of information to be gained, that I studied quite long, I won’t tell you how long exactly. I actually did three studies, I started in econometrics, then later I added mathematics and when I finished both, I studied some philosophy as well.
I actually did three studies, I started in econometrics, then later I added mathematics and when I finished both, I studied some philosophy as well
Afterwards, I wanted to continue with just studying, because I really enjoyed it. My professor however, suggested for me to try to be more creative. I should start exploring the unknown, he said. And so, then I started my PhD and I really went into the unknown, in an area of applied mathematics. This field was not yet explored and there was almost no literature, which meant that you didn’t have to read much, you just had to explore your own brain, to find new directions. At first, I liked this very much. At a certain moment, however, I started thinking that mathematics was too limited for me. When you are in a field where no one has any experience, you have to do a lot of work behind your desk and that becomes a bit lonely after a while. That was the moment, when I switched back to econometrics. This field was more connected with society, it was more social.
Do you enjoy teaching? What part of teaching do you enjoy most?
I enjoy teaching very much. For me, the social aspect is very important. Unlike when exploring the unknown, in education, there is much more interaction and it is more clear what your added value is. When you come in from high school, you already have a certain level of knowledge and reasoning and I know that in a class, there are many bright minds and I like helping all of these minds develop. So, what I like, is to see the young potential and to be the stepping stone for its further progress. In general, I can say that the students themselves are very eager to develop and that makes me very happy. I have a long history of teaching. I came here in 1989, so that is nearly 30 years ago. I have had a very broad range of courses and a whole spectrum of education, but I think I like the start of the bachelor the most, it is a really nice moment in the development of the students.
Moving on to the more informal questions, what kind of music do you like?
Well, for everyone of course, childhood music is very important. Mine was just the starting of rock and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. When I hear them on the radio, I immediately get happy, because then for a moment, I have my childhood back. But, later on, I no longer followed pop music anymore. When it comes to the new streams of music, I am lost. I love classical music and I enjoy visiting the Rotterdam philharmonic in de Doelen.
My childhood music was just the starting of rock and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. When I hear them on the radio, I immediately get happy, because then for a moment, I have my childhood back
I feel that music has the power to put you in a different mood whenever you listen to it and it can relieve any tension that you have. When you are in a concert hall, you cannot escape, you cannot do anything else but listen. After such a concert, I am always very relaxed. When it comes to my favourite eras and artists, I would have to say that it shifts. Sometimes you don’t like a composer at first, but when you hear a bit more, you start liking him. I think that in general, music should just fit with your mood.
What are some other things that you like to do in your free time?
There are several things that I enjoy doing in my spare time, but when I am on holidays, I usually go walking. It is well known among scientists that walking frees the mind. In the summer, I often go to England, or Scotland, or Wales, where I go hiking a lot. Walking is definitely a favourite activity for me.
What are your main interests for research these days?
If you look at my whole academic career, I started out very much on the theoretical side, but then, I gradually shifted to the applied side, where I am also on at the moment. My research is often with other people, one of whom, works in the maritime industry. She has access to very big data bases on ship movements, ship safety and accidents, like oil spills and their environmental effects and loss of life, and other types of damages. I assist her in making statistical analysis and analysing trends. Our last paper was on insurance, this is a big issue in economics. When there are damages, only part of them is visible and insured, and a part, the environment effects, are not covered. What we try to do, is to make a global estimate of yearly damages of the shipping activities and to compare them with the yearly figures of the insurance industry.
Another project of mine, is with someone from Samsung, who has a lot of data from his own firm
Another project of mine, is with someone from Samsung, who has a lot of data from his own firm. This is more in the logistics area, for example, we try to improve labour efficiency. So, as you can see, this is all very applied, in the past, I mostly used to do theorems and proofs.
Do you have a favourite formula or theorem?
The Theorem of Frisch and Waugh. Very easy to write down. You should know Frisch because, you know Tinbergen I guess, Frisch won the first Nobel Prize along with him. Tinbergen said more or less that he learned everything from Frisch.
Could you explain more about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for econometrics?
The scope of MOOCs is very broad. There are MOOCs on how to raise your children or how to use solar energy to cook your food. In Rotterdam, we didn’t have a MOOC yet. So, Rotterdam decided to create MOOCs to be visible as a university in the international market. As a team of seven people from this institute, we produced the first MOOC of the Erasmus University.
It’s available to everyone. Also, of course, to you. I know in Econometrics 2 course sometimes they use parts of this MOOC to help students, but most of it is not as advanced as you get in your studies. So, it goes much less deep than our own courses, but it’s on the same topics; it covers basically Econometrics 1 and 2 in a simple fashion.
It goes much less deep than our own courses, but it’s on the same topics; it covers basically Econometrics 1 and 2 in a simple fashion
We have user data showing that most of them have already a bachelor degree. Many have even a master degree. This MOOC is to be educated once you don’t have time anymore to go to university. You just have to study in the evenings, but you want to shift your field of knowledge a little bit or you want to gain extra skills.
It’s very nice, because we can reach everyone. It’s free. If you have internet, you can benefit from it. We also have the statistics. With the unofficial island states, there are up to 250 countries in total and I think the total coverage we have is around 200. So, Greenland is there, Vatican City is there, many islands in the Pacific that we could never reach otherwise are there. Also, North Korea for instance. Possibly some secret agents trying to find out what’s going on in here.
Do you have a favourite English word?
I think it would be “fine”. It is something like a conclusion. First things are difficult and then in the end we have to check if everyone understood and then if I get the feeling it’s all done it’s just “Okay, fine.”
Where did you struggle most during your studies? Especially in university?
In my time, when I was doing my studies we were in a quite polarized world. In my generation, business, firms were not something which were thought of positive. Because we were very much thinking that they were exploiting us. It was the time of lots of pollution and we were, a bit like in Marxism, saying people get paid very low while their bosses make big profits. Then, we got a course in marketing and I think the teacher had a very hard time because the whole class was just opposed to the topic, but it was obligatory to follow it. So, there we had some resistance. That’s youth. Now, I don’t have those feelings anymore, but for me it was difficult then.
I think my favourite English word would be "fine"
And I think another difficulty was International Economics, because we got it in the second year and we had a lot of mathematical knowledge of course. However, we got a teacher who explained all International Economics with graphs. We had some clever students who were drawing a different graph and saying “Yes, but if it turns like this. Then how does it work?”, but the teacher couldn’t answer these. We said “These graphs are nice as an idea, but we need the formulas. If we don’t have the formulas, we don’t understand.”, but that could not be provided. It was not in the book. The teacher didn’t have this knowledge. Then, we got lost more or less. Nowadays, I would say “Hey this lecturer knows a lot and I should try to learn the maximum out of him. And if he doesn’t know a lot of mathematics, so what. Let’s learn the way he thinks.”, but we were not that adult yet.
Who is your biggest hero?
I’d expected this question; I don’t have a hero, because we can learn from anyone. (Pointing at us) I can learn from you, so you are all my heroes. Everyone is my hero. Everyone in the street. And of course, I have people I like more and I like less, that’s for sure. Some I like very much, some I admire very much, but as a hero, there would be many. So, it’s better I don’t mention. Everyone is a hero if they do the right thing in difficult circumstances.
Is there anything that you expect from your students? Especially in Econometrics 1?
Well, I hope they slept well. So that they are a bit relaxed in their mind and they are open. I need an open mind. So there are just some students who, I don’t blame them but, just copy what I write. That’s a very low level. It’s reading and writing. What I like in students is that the process through the mind is activated. So, before an exam, please go to bed early, so you have a relaxed mind. That’s the best thing they can have.