Teacher Talk is back, and this time we talk to Professor Julian Emami-Namini, lecturer for the double degree bachelor course International Economics and academic director of the Masters program International Economics. In this episode, we talk to him about his life, research interests and his views on online education.
Tell us a bit about your background, where you come from, and your upbringing.
I’m originally from Germany. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Bonn, in the former capital of Germany, and my masters at the University of Konstanz. I started my PhD also at the University of Bonn but then moved to Kiel in the northern part of Germany and finished in Duisburg-Essen, which is actually quite close to the Netherlands. After my PhD, I made the deliberate choice for academia in the sense that I also applied to the private sector but then decided that academia is what I really want to continue in.
How did you end up in the Netherlands?
I was shortlisted by 3 US universities and Erasmus University, and the offer from Erasmus University was clearly the best. It is also beneficial to be close to family, so I decided to come here. I have now been at Erasmus since 2007, so I have quite a long history here. I have been teaching International Economics since the beginning. In my time here, the textbook has changed once. In the master program International Economics, I teach the course Advanced International Trade, and I’m also the academic director of the master program. Basically, I try to promote International Economics at our faculty.
Wow, you’ve been here for a really long time. Have you ever thought of moving elsewhere?
Not seriously, because the block system here allows us to focus on teaching only during a few blocks and I can do research during the rest of the time. I can use the remaining time to visit and collaborate with co-authors. I was once visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada to collaborate with a co-author. Now I have a permanent visiting professor position at University of Tehran, where I also have a co-author for a paper. We have the chance to collaborate in research with people at other universities so there is no need for me to go somewhere else to develop, and I never thought about moving away from Erasmus. It provides an excellent atmosphere for teaching and research.
You mentioned teaching in Iran. How was your experience there?
Very positive. University of Tehran is one of the top Iranian universities. Students there are extremely sophisticated and enthusiastic, just like my students here. There I taught master level students exactly what I teach here, and I can say there was no difference to my students here. A handful of my students there decided to do their PhD here at the Tinbergen Institute. Maybe I had some minor influence on their decision; anyhow it makes me happy they chose to come here. Once I also had two of my bachelor students from here joining me to Iran as exchange students and they made a very positive experience too. I think it is good that students at University of Tehran get exposed to professors from abroad so they can get used to our teaching style. Furthermore, I have a research project with Professor Bosker and a professor in Tehran on a trade related topic.
Did you face any bureaucratic troubles during the process of teaching in Iran?
Actually, not at all, it was quite the opposite. As I said, ESE provides a very good atmosphere, so the faculty has been very supportive, and we have also had the co-author from Iran as a visitor here twice which has been a very good experience. I did not face any hurdles, and I got plenty of support.
Tell us a bit about your research interests and what you are working on right now.
Originally, I’m a trade theorist. In the last couple of years, I have been working on globalisation and the labour market with the co-author from Ryerson. We studied the consequences of globalisation on the incidence of discrimination; so, whether different groups in society have a better or worse chance in the labour market due to globalisation. The general perception is that if we globalise, the increased competition for workers should improve the labour market prospects of groups which would otherwise be discriminated against. We studied under which conditions this holds true. It is not as obvious as one would think. We considered all the general equilibrium effects following trade liberalisation. In addition, we studied the consequences of trade liberalisation on the wage gap. This was a purely theoretical study. We focused on one single market, but we considered all feedback effects resulting from globalisation and discrimination from all other markets in the economy. It was a general equilibrium analysis.
More recently, I have switched to empirical research about Iran. We consider the consequences of trade sanctions on Iranian society. Due to the collaboration with the Iranian professor, we got access to very unique and very valuable data sources. Broadly speaking, we are looking at the effects on households, consumers, workers, and firms. When you visit a country that is hit by sanctions and then experiences their removal, you ask yourself how the country copes with it. We have seen over the years that some items became more expensive, some cheaper and that the country also adjusted its trade pattern. It could even be that sanctions benefit a country. Particularly in this case, Iran starts to produce some goods domestically and gains knowledge to expand domestic production, which could have long term positive effects. This type of topic really interests me.
How do you start the research process?
Firstly I pick topics which really interest me. I often start the research projects by first looking for co-authors as it makes the process easier. Professor Bosker for example is the expert in empirical research. My comparative advantage is theoretical research, so we work well together. In the beginning I preferred to work on my own, but now I like doing research with co-authors. It is also more fun to do something together. Not the most important thing, but still quite important.
Has the pandemic impacted your research?
I would say not at all, only teaching has been affected. Research-wise, there has been no impact. In my daily work, I also benefit from teaching as I get feedback from students on topics I teach, and this is sometimes useful for research. Discussion with students might give me ideas on trade-related topics. So, my research is only affected via the impact on teaching.
What are your thoughts on online education and having to organise courses in this way?
In the first block, I taught a masters course which was a small course, so I taught online, but live. The advantage of this is you get direct feedback. If you explain something poorly, you get grumpy faces and if you explain something well, you get smiling faces. This was missing in the second block, where I taught International Economics. We thought live teaching was hardly possible for such a big group. Direct interaction was missing, which made it difficult for both sides. I think students understand that this is a difficult period for them and also for us. I feel that students cope very well with this situation. They were very well-prepared in the question sessions and adjusted very well. Maybe it would have been better to do the lectures live, but once we made the decision, it was difficult to change it halfway through the course as it would cause more chaos. If I had the chance now, I would have changed the lectures to be live instead of pre-recordings, but as it stands, I have no comparison. I hope we don’t have to think of this again and can be back on campus next year. I hope to be able to teach offline soon again!
Professor Emami-Namini in a pre-recorded lecture. International Economics was organised entirely online.
Students are really fond of you, and the fact that you are so cheerful and optimistic. It makes the lectures welcoming, even online where it is usually quite demotivating. How do you generate the energy to do that? Because it can also be demotivating for lecturers to be on the other side and not see anyone.
Thank you. When I pre-record my lectures, I have the feeling that students are listening to me. Even though I am just talking to myself, I get this feeling after a few minutes. The thought that students are listening to me might make my lectures more lively than typical pre-recorded lectures.
What do you think is something that is better online than in person?
That students can watch the video over and over. I realised my teaching style is still the offline style. I repeat the same thing 3 times, and with video recordings this is not necessary. This is an advantage of teaching with recorded lectures. I got less emails with questions compared to last year as students could just re-watch what they didn’t understand.
What is your favourite part about your job?
For me, it is the combination of teaching and research. I wouldn’t want to work in a purely research institute where I cannot teach anything, but I also wouldn’t want to be teaching all the time. It is the permanent change between research and interaction with students which is the most attractive part of my job here. Last year, I had all my teaching in the first block whereas this year I taught during the first two blocks. I realised that the latter is better for my time management as I have dedicated days for teaching and for research. I benefit from doing both at the same time.
What is something students do that disappoints you?
I really don’t think there is anything as such. If anything, I really like it when students challenge me. If they tell me that something I teach is nonsense, I ask them why. And this usually results in a great discussion. I like it when students think critically and point out something. It may happen that a student stands up and says, “I don’t believe anything you say”. When this happens, it really makes me happy. Unfortunately, this is not possible with online education.
What is your strangest experience as a professor?
Each year, around 1000 students follow my classes. Once I was on a plane, and the person next to me turned out to be a former student. Also, one time when I was in London trying to buy train tickets, a former student came up behind me and tapped my shoulder. It is not strange in a negative sense but rather in a positive sense. It is always a pleasant encounter when I run into a former student in a place I wouldn’t otherwise expect to.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I like to play tennis with my colleague Crutzen on the courts on campus. We challenge each other after work and it’s very fun. Of course, this is not possible now.
Is there an economist you look up to?
Very often, famous people who are hailed as heroes might have had luck to achieve what they did. I don’t think these are really people who are better than the rest of us. Perhaps being inspiring is more precise than classifying a role model. When it comes to who inspires me, it is my parents and grandparents. So, if the question is who inspired me, I would name them. And if the question is which economist inspired me, then honestly there is no one.
We would like to thank Professor Emami-Namini for his time and his elucidating responses!