June 21, 2021

Spotlight: Dhruv Khurana

Interview by: Noah Ringler a PFF Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology 

Dhruv Khurana is a Doctoral Student in Health Economics and teacher at California State University San Bernardino (CSUSB)

“I really enjoy the human connection. I think [teaching] is the most dynamic profession. … It makes you fall in love with the discipline all over again. It revolutionizes the way you think of the world…”

Q1. How were your expectations different from the reality of teaching? 

A1: Getting right into it with the big guns, I see. I started teaching as a solo instructor at an undergraduate level about three years ago. I had some prior teaching experience. As an instructor, especially a new one, you aim to have everything down to the T, so when a student asks you a question, you want to answer it well. Suppose I’m going to teach a topic that I may have a hard time answering questions on or that I think I will not explain well. I read that topic multiple times, take notes, find alternate resources, so I can communicate the complete picture to my students, and be prepared to answer accurately any questions they may have. Over time, I realized I was overdoing it. I did not need to do all this excessive preparation because I know my discipline well and I’m in touch with the current empirical research. However, when I walked into my first class, I expected students to ask more questions and instantly realized that students struggle to speak up.

How did you address the issue? 

To evoke more questions from my students, I started using more pop-culture examples and incorporating a little bit of slang. Many of the seminal textbooks do not use examples that catch current students’ attention. The students spend more time on Tik Tok, Instagram, Snapchat than anything else. So, if I have to teach economics with references to The Office or Ricky & Morty while acquainting myself with Gen Z slang/lingo, I will. Also, using personal examples from their daily lives opens them up more to have an open communication line where they feel comfortable to indulge in discussions with you. Students want to know what’s going on in the world, and if you explain the material in a more expressive, they will be more open to seeing you as a real person, which further opens up the conversations between you and them.

Q2: What have you learned about teaching from your students?

A2: A lot. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the big picture when taking graduate-level courses embedded in theory, whereas undergraduate students have a much clearer view of things. The questions they ask – pull you out of the weeds and allow you to focus on the bigger picture, which helps you to shift gears and focus on what matters the most and helps redefine your own learning objectives. I can break down complex concepts in simpler terms and convey big picture ideas more comprehensively due to their questions. But what I am most grateful about is how they helped me in changing my Ph.D. concentration. When I came to Claremont in Fall 2016, my specialization was in behavioral and neuroeconomics. But in Fall 2018, I was discussing poverty & income inequality during my Principles of Macroeconomics course. As I’m delivering the lecture, a student asks me, “so why don’t we just fix this?”. I thought that’s a novel and lofty goal that we wish it were that simple, but there are many variables to consider in understanding how complicated the situation is. However, that question inspired me to look more into the effects of inequality on low-income communities.

Upon interactions with Prof. Freund, I was more curious to look into the connections between income and health. It put me on a path to change my Ph.D. concentration to Health Economics. As we stand now, my research focuses on developing, implementing, and evaluating interventions to improve access, utilization, and reduce costs of care, specifically for low-income communities. My students made me realize I have a skill set that can work well in health economics. If it were not for my inspiring students and my kind advisors, I would not be a Health Economist.

Q3: What are some of your best techniques for inclusive and equitable learning?

A3: I have always been mindful of inclusive and equitable learning, partially because of my own experiences as a student of color. Simple attempts, such as remembering your students’ names can go a long way in establishing a respectful rapport with your students.
I also make a conscious effort to learn to pronounce their names correctly, in addition to remembering their pronouns, and identities. It helps to create a safe space for my students to comfortably express themselves in the classroom. It can also allow the student to connect to the material personally and feel more involved in their learning.

Even turning on “closed captions” on the videos you play during your lectures goes a long way to enhance your students’ learning. It makes it easier for ESL students to follow the conversation in the video and is a necessity for students with disabilities. I also make sure that the material I provide can be easily converted into an audio format (text-to-speech) without much inconvenience.
With transition to online learning, I have started to record my lectures in addition to other asynchronous material, so the student doesn’t have to sit on the computer for long and succumb to Zoom Fatigue. They can go back to look at the material and grasp it at their own pace without being rushed to take notes during the synchronous lecture.

But most importantly, the instructor must realize the importance of being empathetic, especially during these turbulent times. The students are significantly more anxious during online learning than usual. They’re taking five classes at a time, their parents may have lost jobs, they may be babysitting their siblings, or working extra hours to make up for lost family income and I don’t want them to worry about deadlines for my class. Things happen in people’s lives outside of the classroom, especially right now. So, you have to be patient with them, understand where they are coming from, and you have to communicate that empathy to them. There may be students that want to take advantage of me being lenient, but I don’t care. I’m not losing my sleep over somebody thinking I’m an easy professor. I’m trying to help those who need help.

Q4: What are some changes you would like to see in higher education? Or predictions for how you see higher education changing?

A4: That’s a conversation that could go for hours, but the top one or two for me was just a discussion I had with a colleague the other day. People tend not to be able to problem-solve under challenging situations. In these general elective classes, we have stopped talking about the application of the material we teach. We have shifted to a rote learning system (i.e., memorization) where you memorize a definition and select a multiple-choice option. Often, students only care about getting an A in a GE course and do not realize how important or applicable the material is. I do not blame a Biology major for only caring about their grade on their Econ GE course and not appreciating the material, especially if I am not doing my best in convincing them why they must learn economics. So, their disengagement is partially on us, instructors, for not bringing our passion to the table and not engaging them with the material.

We need to work on focusing on problem-solving and critical thinking in our classrooms. Part of the solution is walking away from heavy reliance on scantrons. I understand the trade-off between the number of students and the quality of teaching. I also understand teachers have lives too. So, maybe we should focus on improving student-teacher ratios, which goes to funding. We do not have enough funding for education, especially in public universities. We have had an administration in the last four years that cut down education budgets significantly. So, there are variables that are influencing one another that hurt our students. Many of which are beyond their control, some of which are beyond our control. So, you have disengaged students sitting in a classroom with burnt-out professors. When was the last time we asked our professors how they are handling the transition to online teaching?  The system needs to consider the professors’ mental health too. When they are doing well, they can provide better guidance to their students.

Q5: What are three key pieces of advice for other teachers  or your  younger self?

A5: First, you must understand your student demographic. Understand their level, their background, their needs. Be willing to provide accommodations to those who need them. Do not be too rigid with the course policies. Try to create an environment where students feel completely comfortable coming up to you and asking you questions. Do not be afraid to show your human side. Do not come into your class on a pedestal. You were once a student, too, so try to show them the trajectory of your learning. Do not be afraid to be personable with your students while maintaining professionalism.

Do not take somebody else’s syllabus and copy it. The way you teach and the way somebody else teaches are two entirely different things. You can use somebody else’s syllabus as a reference, but you set yourself up for failure if you do exactly what they did. If you are passionate about the course you are teaching, go with your instincts. Teach what you think should be taught, and do not hesitate to be creative in the classroom.  Feel free to explore more modern resources that can improve the delivery of your content. Update your material more often if your discipline permits; I cannot emphasize this enough. The world changes every day; your course material can stand to change a little too. It also keeps things fresh and exciting for you and helps with the monotony.

Another thing I would say is to sit down and introspect. Go back and think about your experiences as a student: what stuck out to you? What annoyed you? Think about the times you saw a professor do something in your class that you did not like or the times they did something you enjoyed. Introspect on your own education experience, the highs, the lows, and then use that to help guide your classroom environment.

Finally, I would say do not be hard on yourself. Evaluations are 100% important. But if you are a new instructor, do not let one negative comment amidst 10s of 100s of positive ones bring your energy down. It is good practice to understand why you received a negative evaluation, but don’t internalize it if there is no constructive feedback. Let it go. I will end with this: take constructive criticism well. You are trying to improve your teaching skills, and who better than someone in the front row to give you feedback. Sometimes, when your students share feedback, there is some wisdom, and you want to get that out of them to continue improving your teaching.

Q6: What do you love most about teaching?

A6: I love my discipline (economics) a lot. There is always this misconception when I walk into the class on the first day on how economics is only about money and finance. It is fun to help my students realize that economics is involved in every decision they make – right from waking up to dozing off at 3 am while browsing Tik Tok. I enjoy helping them use tools from economics to improve their daily lives and the lives of those around them.

Second, I enjoy the human connection. I think it is the most dynamic profession. Even if you teach the same topics, you still have a new set of students coming in every semester. So, the monotony may exist by teaching the same thing over and over again. At the same time, there is a new sense of curiosity, a new set of questions. It makes you fall in love with the discipline all over again. It revolutionizes the way you think of the world because, at all times, you are continually thinking about your discipline and how better you can explain a topic. I sometimes take notes on my phone while watching a TV show or a movie, “this will be a great clip to show during class for this topic.”

Also, what I like about teaching is the satisfaction you get when a student understands a topic and applies it somehow. When you get these emails from students sending you updates about their lives or letting you know that specific lessons stuck with them. When that happens, there is this rush of excitement that flows right through your body. Nothing can take that moment away from you in your teaching experience—when a student comes up to you and tells you how your classes positively affected them as they continue in their lives. All those emails, calls, Christmas cards—that’s what makes me stay in academia more than anything.