HAVE SMARTS, WILL TRAVEL
Knowledge is known to take you places—and for one professor and his students, that phrase takes a turn to the literal.
Meet IPFW Assistant Professor of Economics Zafar Nazarov, who recently took a group of students to Cuba in order to get a firsthand look at the Central American country’s economy and how it might be changing now that their relations with the United States are also in the process of changing.
“Any theory can be hard to swallow,” Nazarov says, “but if you can make it more applied and reflect the importance of the theory on the individuals who are learning it, while understanding the constraints they’re facing, then you’re able to combine those problems with the theories you’re teaching. Then the students will be more engaged in the learning process.”
After receiving his doctorate from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Nazarov spent two years in a fellowship and then took a job at the disability institute in Cornell University. After three years of research, Nazarov turned his attention to teaching.
“I had the opportunity to teach at Cornell and then I learned about an open position at IPFW,” he says. “I applied and, in the end, I was lucky to be chosen and invited to this institution. I’ve found it to be an interesting experience.”
That was three years ago—Nazarov just finished up his sixth semester teaching everything from micro- and macroeconomics to public finance and health economics at IPFW. He also had the recent opportunity to take a class on a trip to Cuba.
“I agreed because Cuba is on the verge of transitioning from one system to another and I grew up in the Soviet Union, which had a similar system in the past as Cuba does today,” he explains. “I had a good understanding about Cuba’s initial position and, using the experience of other Soviet Union republics, I had this understanding where Cuba might go. It might end up in state capitalism, market capitalism, or something else—so I tried to teach students that this is how they start and that we could try to project where they will end, and what will change the path they’re on.”
The trip to Cuba allowed Nazarov’s students to understand the differences between institutions and systems they’re living in and the system just 90 miles from the U.S. coast—they interacted with Cuban residents and tried to understand the constraints they’re facing based on the differences in their country’s system.
“That’s a simulation type of approach,” Nazarov says, “while at the same time, engaging them in learning some theoretical aspect. I was very pleased with the trip. It was very educational and showed me a good example that happiness is not only about the formation of capital.”
After visiting three different regions of Cuba, he and his students were both impacted by both the system differences and the enduring happiness of the people who—despite their economic constraints—stayed positive. Nazarov mentions that the students all took turns in noticing and pointing out, “They look very happy.”
Seeing the class material in a real-life setting made their studies come alive for the students, who tend to lean more toward the straightforward approach to education.
“The IPFW student body is different from the other institutions,” he says. “I was a graduate student at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and I had a little bit of teaching experience at Cornell—I see that the students at IPFW are more practical and looking for more practical answers. That makes it fun sometimes for a teacher—challenging, but fun.”
THE LEARNING EFFECT
“My main intellectual contribution is in the area of health economics and labor economics where the two intersect,” Nazarov explains. “I am very interested in topics such as disability and factors associated with the increase of participation in disability programs in the United States. I also have papers on hot topics such as childhood obesity.”
One of the classes Nazarov teaches is health economics, to which he takes a different approach than most instructors.
“When I was a student, I took a lot of health economics courses, but they were mostly theoretical,” he recalls. “The students lost interest at some point because if you only discuss theoretical aspects without backing your implications with empirical findings, most students have to be very motivated to continue and grasp all the theories from different models. What I’ve done differently in my class is I’ve introduced the empirical part.
“I ask students to make their hands dirty with the data. I provide them with representative samples of Americans such as the health retirement survey, which gives them information about the random sample of Americans over the age of 50. I also give them the current population survey, which consists of some health-related questions. I ask them to empirically investigate these things using whatever theoretical relationship we’re studying at the time to see whether or not there’s an empirical basis for the theoretical implications.”
Nazarov normally has 10-15 students per class—sometimes as many as 20, as is the case with his health economics class this past semester. He’s constantly changing the structure of the class to meet student demand.
“If you see some students are actually taking that class because of their target—if they’re looking to apply for medical schools, for example, I add topics like why people want to be doctors or what the return investment is on being a doctor,” he says. “Then after the class, the students can ask themselves if they still want to take this career path based on what they studied.”
One aspect of teaching at IPFW that is important to Nazarov is to make the students see the value in the effort and time they’re spending in his class. He stays mindful of his students having lives outside his classroom and does his best to make what can sometimes be a struggle through higher education worth it to them.
“You try to engage them and show them the benefits of the education they’re getting,” he says. “Like, ‘Yes, this is theory.’ ‘Yes, it’s a bit flat in the book, but let me pitch this a different way for you and then maybe you’ll see the importance of it in your daily life.’ That’s what I’m always trying to do—bring the theory. They (theories) become interesting depending on the teacher’s ability to pitch them to the students.”
Regardless of whether something is “only a theory” or is particular to Cuba’s economic system, the knowledge base has a definite impact on society at large and shapes communities around us—even our own.
“My kids are enrolled in sports, for example,” Nazarov says. “You meet with the parents, you socialize with them, and you discuss with them news about currency, tuition, the healthcare market, and you learn that people don’t really have a good understanding about the system. You can shape and then answer their questions. With neighbors, you engage in similar intellectual discussions. It would be good to reduce the gap between what is happening in reality and what people know. Then we could reduce the gap between getting informed about healthcare and making a decision.”
Locally, Nazarov receives a number of calls from different firms—including one conversation with a company that sells software for hospitals that had questions about an internal rate of return on their product. He’s also recently talked to a regional orthopedics company about an ongoing evaluation of their company’s system. Moving forward, Nazarov is planning to continue research, teaching, and his projects—and hopes there may be a similar class trip opportunity in the future.
“I’m proud of these past seven years—I’m still learning,” he says. “Every time I get acceptance from a peer review journal it feels like a productivity boost. At the same time, from a teaching perspective after your first two or three semesters, you get emails from students saying, ‘Thank you very much. I do remember how you taught us that concept and it turns out that it’s very useful.’ It turns out that students do see the importance of certain concepts through personal experience later on that they started in school. It makes you want to work harder in order to ultimately give them more.”
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