Interview with Belinda Archibong, Assistant Professor of Economics
Much of your research is directly related to the pandemic and last month you were a contributing author with other researchers, including your colleague Professor Rajiv Sethi, of the white paper published by Harvard University’s Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics, “Toward Global Pandemic Resilience.” Could you describe the process of transitioning your courses online and how the new context we’re living in now - and that your research focuses on - may have affected them?
Sure, I taught two courses this semester, one called Theoretical Foundations of Political Economy, a history of economic thought class, essentially; the second course was Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. With both of them it’s been very interesting trying to transition online. Part of my research is on the economics of pandemics, so definitely this is a time when I’ve been bringing a lot of my research into the classroom, especially my Theoretical Foundations of Political Economy course.
My courses are usually super interactive. I like lots of discussion in my classes because I don’t see the point of just me talking the whole time. It’s boring. It was boring when I was a student and I don’t want to be that person [now].
So essentially, we have two major projects that we require lots and lots of discussion from the students. One is a series of debates that we do in class, usually for the Theoretical Foundations of Political Economy course. We’re reading Smith and Marx and Keynes and the big names in the history of economic thought and we take their ideas and we discuss real life topics. We discuss things like minimum wage versus UBI (universal basic income), something that everyone was discussing recently in light of Covid-19 and the stimulus checks. That was one of our topics for debate. Labor unions: Do we need them? What are their roles? is another discussion that we’ve had in class in the context of Marx.
It was interesting trying to shift that to the online format. One of the things that was good, that was at least beneficial for me and the students about this shift, was that my debates are usually very, very structured. I have this sheet that says, “At time ‘T,’ you switch to the other team who will say ‘X.’” Generally, some people see the structure and say, “Wow, does it need to be this structured when you’re in an in-class debate? Can’t you just let things go with the flow?” I realized that structure was essential for the online zoom thing, because the students are in completely different time zones and many of them, because they have to meet before their debate to make sure they’re prepared for what they’re going to say, have to meet before the debate. All of that coordination was much easier when they had an established structure for the debates.
The students were troopers. They were really great this semester given the fact that they had a surprise online class being sprung on them halfway through the semester. They did excellently. They really engaged with the in-class discussion and with the debates, and it went very well; I thought it went excellently. I can also say shout-out to the Speaking Fellows at Barnard. They were amazing and they worked with the students remotely to prepare them for how you speak publicly in the debates - how do you convey enthusiasm over the screen and get your fellow classmates are still interested in what you’re saying? It went quite well; it was fantastic.
How large is that class?
We had about thirty-six to forty students in that class. It went really well, because part of the debate is that the teams will talk to each other, and then their classmates will also ask questions. What I would tell them was that, “If you are able to put on your camera, please put on your camera. Use your audio if you are able to use your audio - but if not it’s completely fine.” People might not be able to; they might not have good connection capabilities. So, it worked really well; most of them did end up turning on their cameras and they used the mic if they wanted to ask questions, and they also used the chat room which worked really well to ask questions to their teammates. So that was the theoretical foundations class - it went very well.
For my Environmental Economics class, they have end of year GIS presentations, so they use the spatial software, GIS, to create maps that show or explain something about environmental policy. So, for instance, they had really, really nice projects this year about Covid-19, thinking about the relationship between air quality and racial disparities in health from Covid-19. Those were something where they technically have all semester to prepare and then they have these group projects at the end of the semester. There were challenges regarding how you meet with your teammate when you are twelve hours apart in completely different time zones. But again, they were troopers. They worked it out very, very well. The presentations were excellent.
As with the structures just as with my debates, I also have a structure for the presentations – x minutes for this, x minutes for that - and that structure was essential for the presentations to go smoothly. Really, really great projects - they did so well and again considering the circumstances. I had a student in Korea who was waking up at 3am to join class. I was like, “Good job, you’re amazing, you don’t have to do that because this is all recorded but I really appreciate that you’re enthusiastic enough to wake up at 3am and to join class.” So, they were excellent; they were amazing.
Again, I think the structure was important but also the effort, not just from the students – and they were amazing - I should also say with the GIS projects, shout-out to Jennie Correia the Social Sciences Librarian. She was also amazing; she worked with the students to find data and materials. And the Empirical Reasoning Center (ERC) - I also want to shout them out - Alisa Rod, Associate Director of the ERC. The Barnard community is amazing. You get to draw on everybody from the speaking fellows, to the writing fellows, the empirical reasoning center, the social science librarians, to really help the students out in doing their projects and their in-class assignments as well.
It sounds as though it was a pretty smooth transition in both courses.
Yes, that was good. It was nice because after the first online class one of my students emailed me writing, “Thank you so much. This was really smooth and normal.” I basically just treated it like we were in class. Generally, when I’m teaching I’m super excited because I like what I’m teaching and it’s interesting so I’m like, “Guys, this is really great!”
The way I teach my class is I open up a class with a discussion of an article in the news. The first day of class [after the online transition] we were like, “Okay guys, let’s talk about Covid, and let’s link it back to the discussions we’re having about the economy in reading Smith’s Wealth of Nations.” I think it was (I hope at least) good in terms of giving the students a chance to really talk about their worries and their anxieties regarding the current situation of the pandemic, but in a way that wasn’t maybe as painful or as personal as it could be because we were able to use our theory from class to talk about them. It kind of abstracted a little bit away but also connected the dots to the things they were experiencing in their own lives. I think that worked well in the online platform as well.
Are there certain creative ideas that you or your students came up with to enhance the experience of this transitional period and maintain instructional continuity that might be helpful to share?
I mentioned before that I was fortunate (or prepared!). My courses were very structured from the beginning. I like order and structure and I think the students appreciate that. And I know people who are fantastic lecturers who can pop in, give this brilliant lecture, and then pop out, and that’s excellent and works well for an in-person type of class, but with online everything needs to be structured down to every assignment, every question, every debate, every presentation - it all needs to be structured. [The students] need to see that there is a nice format that is continuing that they can use for their assignments, for their presentations, for their in-class work. I think that worked really well and helped smooth that transition for us and our classes.
The whole thing about the camera was very interesting for me, and I think for the students. One of the things that we don’t notice as much when you’re in class is that there is a large range of socioeconomic class being represented in our classrooms. If you’re in class you don’t really notice because you’re all sitting in the same classroom - you’re all at Barnard and it’s fun. When you’re not in class and you’re videoing, you’re seeing the backgrounds of your other peers. Some people are on nice porches somewhere upstate and some people have to share apartments with their families and you can see that in the background. One of the things that I worried about is how does that psychologically affect your ability to learn.
At first, we were having this discussion of “Should we have [the students] all turn on their videos?” and I was like, “Well, no I don’t think so,” because again very, very different life circumstances. I feel like so many people have done research on the effects of a classmate’s circumstances or the peer effects on learning, and how socioeconomic class affects signaling people what their class is affects how well they’re able to pay attention in class, how it evokes all of these anxieties around class, socioeconomic status and all of these things. So that was a worry for me. Hopefully we are all back in class in the fall, but this continues to be a worry for me in terms of thinking about how you make sure that that online video setting doesn’t impact learning.
That’s so interesting – it’s something I’ve noted just anecdotally from my own experience on zoom.
It’s funny because with my research I’ve been talking to a lot of reporters. I had my first video interview and [the journalist] sent me a page saying, “This is what your background should look like: no white walls, try to get a nice shelf in the background.” I don’t really have shelves like that. I feel like my office is my office and my home is my home. My books are in my office, not in my home. My home isn’t as fancily laid out as it would be in my office. It’s very interesting having to be like, “Yeah, let me go find my one shelf in my living room and position my laptop and position some books on there to make it look like that.”
I’m sure our sociologist colleagues have talked about this extensively before: how we present ourselves to the world and how that affects how we view ourselves and the images we try and portray. The online video thing has taken away people’s abilities to project themselves, or at least some people’s abilities to project themselves the way they would like to and to have that kind of control over [their] own image. Some people have that ability - I thankfully have another living room that I can go into and put the shelf there and put the books on and curate that background - but some of my students don’t have the ability to say, “Oh, let me go and curate this background and pretend that there aren’t people in the background running around in the house.” That is a concern when it comes to thinking about how we manage these types of online [Zoom] sessions. Maybe don’t require people to turn on their video.
Like I said, I would say [to my students], “You can turn the video on but if not, it’s totally fine - don’t feel pressured.” Telling the students things like that is definitely necessary as well. I’m sure there will be research coming out soon on the effects of these types of sudden online classes. But that was definitely a concern for me, and the way we managed that was to say, “Turn on if you can and if you can’t, don’t feel bad.” I had some students turn on the nice fancy fake backgrounds with Zoom, and that works too. It seemed to maybe mitigate some of those effects.
Those are vital points and recall the recent New York Times piece about two Haverford College students and how online learning revealed how the space of a physical campus can be a ‘false equalizer’ that minimizes issues of socio-economic, racial and other inequalities. Are there other concerns that you think are important to point out?
The issue of internet access is one. This should be universal and free. Clearly, this is what this experience [of the pandemic] is revealing. During our debates, some of my students’ video was cutting out or their sound was cutting out because they didn’t have great access to high speed internet connection. And that’s an issue if you’re trying to have students online and learning online. I think a good way the College tried to get around that was having the Zoom recordings so you could watch the video after the fact. But then again, if you wanted to participate in real time, it’s still a barrier to learning because you aren’t able to participate in real time because you don’t have access to good, functional internet. So that was one thing that was also worrying/concerning to me. And also access to the software and the GIS mapping application: that was also initially an issue but this way I think our Barnard colleagues and Columbia colleagues really stepped in in a fantastic way. They were able to give free-licenses to all students to remotely access mapping software that was essential for our projects. That really made me start looking into the open access software for students to be able to use in the event they couldn’t do the remote thing provided by Columbia/Barnard.
This is something we’ve had a discussion about for a while in academia in general and my field of Economics – about giving free access to things like textbooks. In a lot of my classes I try to make sure there’s a course reserve copy in the library, but I also try to give them a free online copy of whatever the book is that we’re using.
Again, I go back to this “background” thing. We don’t think about it, as you said, and I think the New York Times article was saying this: when you’re in class, it kind of creates this safe illusion, if you will, that everybody’s coming from the same place, and that everybody has access to the same things. And it’s not true. I feel like our job, our role, is to try as hard as possible to at least try to ease some of those burdens - to try and make [the idea that everyone is coming from the same place] as true as possible as we can make it when we know that is not true in real life. So, that’s where I think definitely kudos to our colleagues at Barnard and Columbia who really stepped up in a big way trying to provide equitable software and ease these tech burdens for the students.
The aspect of the background and all of the access issues that you’ve discussed are so important. Could you also go into depth into some of the research projects that you students did in your courses and also how your own research may have evolved during this period? We’ve read the recent Harvard University Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics report, have been following you on Twitter, have read some recent news articles in which you’re quoted and are really interested in the research you’re doing.
All of the students’ projects were amazing. There were two of them that I thought were really, really cool. One team did a project looking at the links between media engagement, so whether you were a CNN or Fox News watcher, and your belief in climate change and global warming. You can see how the demographic shifts change, and you can see how the US changes by state and the percentage that watched CNN versus Fox. That percentage [is] very, very strongly positively linked to people who believe in climate change: CNN watchers were very much more likely to say, “Yes, climate change is happening” versus Fox watchers. Thinking about how media basically influences our beliefs about even things that we would say are ostensibly scientific facts about the world, like global warming [is] super important because it determines whether or not we pass policy to interact with these issues. That was a very cool project.
Another very cool project was a a presentation on the Diwali festival in India. They looked at the impact of the festival and the kind of fireworks used in the festival and air quality and how that could have longer term implications for health in India. They’re basically thinking about [the question] of when you have these big, very important cultural practices but then have all of these negative environmental externalities, how do you pass environmental policy to impress or reduce the kind of harm that’s done to people, given that it’s such an important part of people’s lives?
We had a few Covid papers; you can tell it was on students’ minds. We had a project where they explored and showed very nicely the distribution of poor air quality with rates of asthma and respiratory illness, and then another project about Covid-19 mortality rates and infection rates, looking at those disparities by race, showing the disparities among African Americans and air pollution and deaths from Covid-19.
They did really fantastic jobs showing and exploring these topics. They were amazing - amazing! I was so happy. Especially given they did not have access to all of the tools that they would have in normal circumstances, and they were still able to do such great projects. I was very proud and I was very happy.
Could you discuss some insights to your courses and your pedagogical approach and because your research is so connected to the pandemic, has this semester informed your research in new ways?
Definitely. You know, it’s been a very interesting time for me research-wise because I’ve been doing this work on the economics of epidemics for a few years, and I didn’t really think it would become as prominent as it then became - it’s a very odd feeling. It’s been very interesting because [it connects to] one of the things that I mentioned to my Environmental Economics students all the time. A lot of them are very interested in effecting policy someday. So, I’ll tell them, “Imagine you are in an elevator with a policymaker. You have a 30 second pitch, you have to tell them how important this thing is and convey how important this topic is to them. How do you frame your argument, what are the things you should say?” And I say that all the time but I had the chance to do this with actual policymakers, but infrequently. In the last few months, I’ve basically been living that scenario it feels – not in an elevator, but in online discussions with people and figuring out how to leverage Twitter and social media to convey the important parts of this work. When you’re doing all this work in the economics of pandemics, you want people to listen, you want people to understand why this is important, so that [attention] has been nice.
I tell my students about the work that I’m doing and the conversations that I’m having with journalists and policy people. We get into all these very interesting discussions about what the implications of these topics are theoretically in class and in practice. It has really strengthened for all of us that connection between theory and practice, and highlighted the importance of media engagement in conveying your ideas as well. I think that’s the kind of major insight that I’ve had so far.
I’ve said this many times, but I’m just really impressed by our students. Our students are amazing and fantastic and so excellent. I’ve just been constantly impressed by them. Honestly, I was kind of surprised that people were still attending class after we switched online! They attended and most of them were in class. They were there, they were prepared for class, and I was like “This is great!” It’s been a tough semester for sure with the transition and everything. This is not what they signed up for and the students have been excellent throughout.
Is there anything we didn’t touch upon that you would like to convey?
One of the things that I worry about and some of my students have mentioned is that a lot of them had internships and jobs lined up that have been cancelled now. It would be great if as a Barnard community we could come up with some online engagement that would make them feel less adrift, because they had these summer opportunities lined up that have now disappeared because of Covid-19. I think that would be awesome.
And as I mentioned, the background thing really struck me. I’m not sure what the solutions to that would be because we can say, “Okay, now turn off your video” but it doesn’t change the fact or the knowledge that some of the students have that their classmates are not experiencing as much hardship. It goes on both sides. On the one hand you’re thinking, “Should I feel some sort of way because my family is able to afford to leave and be in a situation where I don’t have to worry about my background?” and there are other students who are like, “Should I worry about my background?”
That would be fascinating to research and write about, especially as your work is in economic inequality. Did any of your students bring these issues up?
Some of them would text me or email me and say, “I can’t turn on my background right now; I hope that’s okay” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s totally fine.” None of them brought it up, so it could be that maybe we’re worrying too much. I don’t know. But also, possibly they didn’t feel comfortable because it’s kind of an awkward thing to bring up, like phrasing, “Sorry, I have class insecurity and so I don’t feel like turning on my camera.” It’s a very weird thing to navigate.
As you said, I study economic inequality and just thinking about the implications [of Zoom]: this is a literal window into economic inequalities when you see all the zoom boxes. I mean it’s very interesting, and I also worry because there are disparities by class, but also cross-cutting class and race. Not so much gender for us because we’re all women at Barnard, but I feel like someone needs to write about this.
I can only speak from my personal experience. When I was at Columbia – I did my undergrad at Columbia – it was much easier to perform, because nobody’s looking at or going to your house. I keep thinking about how I would have felt, basically, if I had had to have these online courses coming from the background that I was coming from and knowing the type of image that I wanted to portray about myself. You don’t want people to pity you or anything - there’s a whole number of emotions involved. You want to present an image of yourself and your family, and protect your family, and you’re aware of how people may view your background and you want to control that narrative. But having it online takes away a lot of that control. I’m not sure what Barnard can do about it but I think it’s something to be very sensitive to as instructors. It’s been very interesting to observe, let me put it that way. It’s worrying also to think about the implications of what will this do to individuals, learning, confidence - all of these things.