Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 38

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Since my Chair was in International Trade, most of my teaching in Berkeley was in that field of Economics, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. The undergraduate classes in Berkeley are large, and mine had sometimes more than 200 students, even though this course was meant mostly for later-year undergraduates. Large classes bring you in close touch (particularly in office hours) with a refreshing diversity of young people. But they also bring other kinds of experience.

In large crowded classrooms the borderlines were always a bit fuzzy–sometimes nearby pedestrians will saunter in just out of curiosity, to hear a funny-looking man speaking in a funny accent; some others were from the aimlessly-loitering often mentally-disabled street people. One day as I was teaching, one woman belonging probably to the latter group seated in a backbench suddenly stood up, looked at the ceiling for a minute and then gave out a piercing wail. As I was pondering how to handle this, fortunately for me she slowly walked out of the auditorium.

A colleague of mine, Richard Sutch, an economic historian, usually taught a much larger beginning Econ 1 class, which sometimes had about a thousand students. He told me that he regularly took out what was called a ‘teachers’ insurance’; he said in a thousand-strong class there were bound to be some crazies who were going to sue you for one thing or another—this insurance was for his legal protection. I said in jest that I had often wondered why in any case we were not more regularly sued for ‘malpractice’ (like doctors), for our class teaching not helping them in getting a job for example.

Once I had a rather disturbing encounter with an undergraduate student. This was a student (slightly older than usual students) in a small seminar class that he took with me. He did reasonably well in that class, if I remember right. A few years after he graduated, one day he knocked at my office, and greeted me with a lot of warmth, and started narrating stories about places he visited in the couple of years he had been out of the country after graduation. He went on and on, and at one point I told him that I had another appointment. He stopped, apologized and said that he had come to pick up ‘the thing’ that he had left with me before leaving the country. ‘What thing?’ I asked; he said, “My wife’s jewelry box”. I was dumbfounded and said, “What are you talking about?” He kept on insisting and I tried to explain to him why it did not make any sense for him to leave his wife’s jewelry box with a teacher whom he hardly knew, and even if he tried, why that teacher would keep it. He started sobbing and said that his relation with his wife was already on the rocks, and this was going to make it much worse. At that point I politely but firmly asked him to leave the room. Later when I narrated the story to Kalpana she said I was lucky that the student at the end did not bring out a gun and shoot me.

At the beginning I did not teach much of Development Economics, even though my research was increasingly in that field. The content of an International Trade course was more streamlined and thus easier to teach, whereas that of Development Economics was inherently more amorphous, as it was really all of Economics but applied to a bewildering diversity of countries having most of the world’s population. I used to tell students that Tolstoy’s famous quote from Anna Karenina that “happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” also applied to the diverse country conditions of economic misery.

My colleague Albert Fishlow used to teach a graduate course on macro-development, mainly based on his interest in Latin America. Albert had a large number of Latin American graduate students; his office was near mine, and on days he held office hours, the hallway was agog with Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking students talking among themselves. I knew some of these students as they took my International Trade class and also as I often served in their dissertation committees chaired by Fishlow.

Some of these students are now in different official or academic positions in Latin America or in international organizations. One of them, Mauricio Cárdenas, was for a time the Finance Minister in Colombia. When I was invited by Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá to give a keynote lecture at a conference, they asked Mauricio to introduce me. In this introduction Mauricio said, among other things, that when after his Berkeley days he was wooing his girl-friend (later wife), an Economics student, he tried to lure her by promising his notes from my class in Berkeley. Little did I know that my lecture notes on the dry subject of International Trade could serve as an aphrodisiac!

Slowly I worked out a graduate micro-development course, which I started teaching, and I was soon joined in this by my French colleagues and friends, Elisabeth Sadoulet and Alain de Janvry of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Both of them had done a great deal of research in developing countries in three continents. (For a time Alain was also the coach in a soccer club for young people that my son, Titash, played in). Some of my lectures later formed the basic materials for a textbook, Development  Microeconomics that I published in 1999 (jointly with Christopher Udry, a student and then a colleague of TN—TN was by then teaching at Yale, after leaving ISI, and he had introduced Chris to me).

Even though our textbook has received praise from different quarters, I think its publication was, unfortunately, badly timed. Around this time, the turn of the century, Development Economics took a major turn toward more refined empirical, rather than theoretical, work (which got increasingly reflected in the Development Economics course materials at different American universities), whereas our short textbook deliberately dealt almost entirely with theoretical issues, though drawing insights from our own empirical work (in South Asia in my case, sub-Saharan Africa in the case of Chris).

About a year after joining Berkeley we bought a house on the hill above the campus, facing San Francisco Bay. With hardly any saving in my kitty, I had to take a huge mortgage to buy it. (My father in India, when he heard this, quickly converted the large dollar amount into a gigantic figure in rupees, and gave up all hope that I’d ever be free of the shackles of debt).  So whenever any visitor came to our house and went gaga over our spectacular Bay view, I used to say “Yes, we eat the view”. From the house it is about a two-mile walk down a steep hill to the campus, but walking up is tough.

By then, for the first time in my life I had a car (I learned driving by attending an evening school run by the city—the various sections of this evening school were indeed quite impressive, teaching all kinds of useful skills from plumbing to auto repair at nominal fees). But in the Berkeley campus parking your car is not easy. The University charges a substantial fee for the parking permit, but I soon discovered that the permit was only a ‘hunting license’, it was very difficult to get parking space anywhere near my Department if you arrived after 9 in the morning. No wonder the main coveted reward the campus gives to its Nobel laureates is a dedicated parking spot; in October when the Prize is announced and if any Berkeley faculty gets it, a mock collective sigh goes up in the campus: ‘there goes another parking spot’!

I have heard that when Clark Kerr was the Chancellor at Berkeley, he was reported to have said that he had figured out the ways of keeping the three main groups in his charge happy: the faculty by getting them more parking space; the undergraduates by giving them enough opportunity to have sex; and the alumni with football games.

Clark Kerr, originally a student and faculty at the Berkeley Economics Department, was particularly famous for his reform, when he became University President, of the California education system into a much-copied 3-tier system: the top tier with the main campuses of the University of California, the middle tier with the California state universities for the bulk of undergraduates in the state, and at the bottom the community colleges with the vocational and transfer-oriented programs. As a centrist liberal this man got hit from both sides. In 1964-65 Kerr bore the brunt of the student protests in Berkeley. In 1967 he was hounded out of his University presidency by the newly-elected Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who considered Kerr as much too liberal and whose election campaign had promised to “clean up the mess at Berkeley”. At his dismissal Kerr commented that he was leaving the presidency of the University just as he had entered it: “fired with enthusiasm”!