Big ideas and intellectual discourse are the foundations for Vai-Lam Mui’s teaching

Vai-Lam Mui has been teaching Public Economics to Honour and Master’s students at the Department of Economics for the last ten years. Previously he taught a second year unit called 'Current issues in applied microeconomics'.

He consistently attracts high scores for his teaching, even if some students find his units difficult. He believes the high scores and his recent Dean’s Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning is due to the fact that he teaches something he is deeply passionate about: fundamental ideas.

“I’m genuine and I talk about things I am passionate about. I can share my intellectual journey with my students. It’s very exciting. What I think about, what I do and don’t understand and questions I struggle with,” he says.

About 70 per cent of his unit is about teaching the necessary models and concepts to truly grasp Public Economics. The remaining 30 per cent are discussions with students about applying the ideas and concepts they learned to current policy questions, and challenges to the existing theories. That’s when it gets really interesting for Vai-Lam.

“I learn so much from my students. We start off the term by me teaching them what they need to know. And as we progress, I teach less and listen more to what they think. It’s very good, also for my research.”

Vai-Lam uses a mix of research papers, real-life examples and movies to get his messages across. Many of the articles he teaches come from top research journals, which can be very complicated, so before a lecture he will simplify models for the students and give them background material to study.

He always thinks of examples that show the intuition of a particular question as well as something that may be useful for the students in their future life. He is also a big science fiction fan so is eager to incorporate some sci-fi examples into his teaching.

But these days he can see the generation gap.

“I like Star Trek but fewer and fewer students know about it so that doesn’t work as well anymore,” he laughs.

Vai-Lam considers teaching Honour students a privilege. While the group is small – perhaps 20 students – they are motivated and he doesn’t have to fight to get them to class. Their grasp of economic concepts is good enough for him to challenge their intellect and focus on the more profound questions. Many of which are still the same.

“In Public Economics we are always looking at how we motivate the government, our leaders, to do the right thing. And what is even the right thing? We are essentially looking for different ways to live together," he says.

"The answers to these questions will change, especially with technology, but the questions don’t.”

Every semester he tries to plan according to what the main questions are for that particular semester, taking into account current events. Keeping his syllabus up to date he is always teaching something new and staying interested in his own subject.

He encourages students to share what they are reading with him and to discuss their essay ideas. Students get graded on both an essay and an exam. After the essays are marked, Vai-Lam will spend an entire lecture on anonymous feedback on the essays to ensure the students learn from each other’s achievements as well as oversights. This is a popular part of his unit.

Although there are so many distractions for students these days, Vai-Lam still believes students have an appetite for discussing big ideas and they generally respond well to his teaching.

“I’m very humbled and grateful for the Dean’s Commendation and I think it shows that students are very excited about ideas and intellectual dialogue. I’m an old-fashioned academic. I still believe ideas matter. So I’m happy when I see from the students’ response that they are still excited about these things.”