Faculty Feature: Dr. Mariam Khawar, Associate Professor of Economics

December 21 2015
Category: Academics

 M.Khawar

“I’m actually trying to sell students a dollar bill and they end up paying $3.00 for this dollar bill. This seems like it doesn’t make any sense, but because of the way the auction is set up and the fact that when they bid it’s a sunk cost, it actually does. When we finish the experiment and analyze it, the first time somebody bids over a dollar, the whole class is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

Mariam Khawar has been pushing her students to rethink economics since 1997, when she decided to take a position at Elmira College as her first full-time job. Having grown up in Karachi, Pakistan, a city of 15 million, she has always maintained a global perspective. Drawing from her experiences around the world, she bridged a number of innovative teaching methods to her economics courses. In these courses, she interweaves not only related fields like Business, Management, and Marketing, but also an eclectic array of disciplines including History, Biology, Geography, Politics, Sociology, and Law.

Mariam has recently started to employ a pedagogical technique known as “expernomics,” which is essentially experiments in economics. One example of this technique is an experiment in which she auctions a dollar bill in class. “I’m actually trying to sell students a dollar bill and they end up paying $3.00 for this dollar bill. This seems like it doesn’t make any sense, but because of the way the auction is set up and the fact that when they bid it’s a sunk cost, it actually does. When we finish the experiment and analyze it, the first time somebody bids over a dollar, the whole class is asking, ‘What’s going on? Are you crazy?’” She has also adapted a technique known as “flipping” classes, which is common in the hard sciences, and applied it to the social sciences. This requires students to absorb a high volume of the material before they come to class with PowerPoint presentations they view beforehand. This way, when students come into Mariam’s class, instead of going over the lecture and the concepts the old-fashioned way, they are able to focus on problem-solving as a way to utilize the concepts. 

Mariam is also heavily involved in cutting-edge economics research, and has a contract for a book that’s due in December of 2015. The book is based on a body of research that she has conducted over the last twelve years at Elmira College which deals with the link between geography, institutions, and economic development. “I’m interested in the economics of poorer countries and how they got to be that way. My research looks at colonization as a key factor. If you look at a map of the world, most of the poor countries in the world lie in the tropics, right around the equator. If you look at temperate countries above and below the tropics, their GDP per capita is much higher. What is it about the tropics that are holding countries back?” This research involves studying, not only, historical legacies of colonization, but also bio-geographical factors, such diseases, crops, and climate.

Mariam recently returned from a Term III class in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where she and her students had the opportunity to study these issues first-hand. On the trip, they focused on how globalization affects countries in both positive and a negative ways. They traveled through the three countries and stayed with some local families along the way. Mariam recalls the most meaningful experience of the trip being their visit to the Cambodian “Killing Field”, a collection of mass graves left over from Khmer Rouge regime, which executed millions of their own people during its rule. “As a memorial, the government collected all these skulls and placed them in a glass pyramid that is 50 feet high. When we went to this memorial, there was absolute silence. Some of the students were in tears as we were walking through, absorbing the whole thing and understanding how horrible it was. When we discussed the tour later, it was evident that the students were really moved by it and understood what it means to overcome your past and move forward. Learning about how the Buddhist Cambodians were able to forgive these atrocities by putting their faith in karma opened up a new set of ideas for the students.”