Dr Sabyasachi Das is Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University. His fields of specialization are political economy, public economics, and applied microeconomics. He has received his Ph.D. in Economics at Yale University. Prior to joining Ashoka, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. For his research, he is primarily interested in exploring group inequalities that emerge from various democratic processes. Visit https://dassabyasachi.wordpress.com/ to learn more about his work!
What is your field of expertise? What drew you to your specific research interests?
My work is primarily on local governance issues and political economy in general. This fascinates me because I grew up in a relatively rural part of our country in my home state of West Bengal. I have been around these local institutions of Panchayat growing up, even though I didn’t know much about them. When I started doing my PhD, I came across academic papers that discussed these institutions. Since I have some close association with these institutions, I wanted to know more and that led me to examine the issue much more deeply.
How would you contrast your experience teaching in a liberal arts atmosphere like that of Ashoka with your own undergraduate or Masters education?
At Ashoka University, we have an Undergraduate degree in Economics as well as a Master’s program. I think at the Masters level, the courses are fairly comparable across institutions in terms of the rigour, the depth of the field, as well as the technicality. When it comes to undergraduate courses, however, I think the distinction becomes much starker with the otherwise good colleges that we have in India. I think the distinction primarily stems from the fact that at Ashoka, to begin with, you do not have to commit to a specific discipline or a line of study. As a result, your approach to undergraduate education becomes very focused very quickly in the erstwhile program. At Ashoka, on the contrary, in the first year, you spend a lot of time taking foundational courses across disciplines and that changes the nature of the thinking process of students significantly. When they do take the core courses in the following years, they are able to sort of think about these issues much more broadly. I really like this format. The only drawback with this format currently is not because of the very nature of the program, but because of certain institutional constraints that all such liberal arts programs face in India. Especially because it is required to be a three-year program, I think a lot of colleges are facing a trade-off between giving the student a broad-based exposure in the beginning while ensuring that they have enough depth of knowledge in a specific discipline by the time they graduate. If it were to become a four year undergraduate program like the colleges in the US, then it would help resolve the trade-offs very nicely.
What expertise or skill set is most important to you in your research work?
A lot of my work is empirical in nature. It involves gathering data and analyzing it carefully. The most valuable skill that one needs, to be a good empirical researcher, is to have a keen observation power; to be able to see patterns in this messy world; and to develop a sense of sniffing these patterns in this world. So whatever area of research that you choose to work on – be it health or education or women empowerment – all good empirical researchers need to have a sense of observation or intuition. I collect some data that I think might have correlation, and then use statistical tools to see whether the patterns that I sensed are actually true or not. So developing this intuitive sense of the world, and patterns between phenomena, is one of the most valuable skills that you can have. Additionally, proficiency in statistics and mathematics is necessary to execute, but that largely comes with training.
What do you think of the concept of lectures being expanded from physical classrooms to digital modules, especially with the COVID-19 scare?
I think we are realizing in a very real way the limitations of online teaching. Now that we have to do it on a regular basis because of the current situation, we realize how imperfect of a substitute this is to physical classroom teaching. The fact that students can learn from each other while being in class attending a lecture, is a critical component of classroom teaching. When one student asks a question in the classroom, that often leads the classroom discussion to a very interesting space; so classroom teaching goes beyond just the teacher teaching the material and the students absorbing that. I would say that after this phase is over, the overall learning would be that online teaching can work as a supplement but it can never completely substitute classroom teaching.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller. Can you share an experience or anecdote where your professional journey changed unpredictably?
I would say that personally, deciding to pursue academics itself evolved over time. I was initially not interested in pursuing a career in academics. In my undergrad days, I was more interested in pursuing the civil services. When I went to the master’s program in Delhi University, I started realizing that the subject itself is quite fascinating and it gives me pleasure just to know more about the concepts that economics has to offer. Over time, I also realized that the job of a civil servant is less suited to my personality as opposed to the job of an academic. So I became much more self-aware and I decided to change my path, even though I had applied for a job in the corporate sector at the end of my master’s program. I did the job for a year, and then applied for my PhD and that was essentially when my professional journey changed!
Who is your favourite author?
Who was your idol growing up?
What do you like to do for fun?
I love watching films, especially world cinema.
How would you describe your academic journey at Ashoka in one word or sentence?
Evolution in the right direction.
How would you describe the liberal arts atmosphere at Ashoka in one word?
What other academic subjects interest you?