Conversations With Sir Noel

Posted on Posted in 2012-2013
Transcripts of Donald Jay Bertulfo and Carlo Robert Mercado
Interview by Austin Aris Tinimbang

When former students reminisce about Noel de Guzman, they don’t see a former economics department chairperson that carry an aura of authority nor a know-it-all someone with a PhD from Fordham University tucked in his belt. Rather, they see a light-spirited and accommodating fellow who starts the class with a serving of random personal anecdotes or a joke as an appetizer for the lectures. And so, for the last issue of Oikonomos, let us get to know more about this well-loved academic who can show the average Economics major the way towards insight and understanding – the “Sir Noel” who helps the students survive the seemingly labyrinthine realms of the economic sciences.

OIKONOMOS: Why did you choose to teach?

SIR NOEL DE GUZMAN: Well, I think most people from the academe will probably say that we got into this by accident. It’s not really a conscious decision like when you are in college, you foresee yourself to be a teacher. So, I basically got into it by accident. Dati, right after college, I surveyed the possible employment opportunities and at that time, it was 1984, one year after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and the economy was still not [at] a very good shape. So, it occurred to me that teaching might be a good career. After all, I do like to read; I do like to express my ideas. So, why not get into teaching?

OIKON: You like reading and expressing ideas. But, why teaching? Why not journalism or…?

SIR DG: I guess when I took up economics in college, journalism was pretty much out of the question. I was advised by the then dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Fr. Raul J. Bonoan, a very well-loved leader of the Ateneo. He did advise me, based on my aptitude test coming from high school, that I should take up community journalism because even in high school, they knew that I can write well. But I guess, the reason why I did not pursue, let’s say taking up a course in English Literature or Mass Communication en route to journalism…..I’m not that sort of person that when something comes easy to me, or if it’s easy, I would want it anymore. Because, why would I need to study it if I can do it already?

OIKON: How was your first day as a teacher?

SIR DG: Maybe not many Ateneo Econ majors know this but it used to be a tradition in the Economics Department that when somebody new is hired, they give him or her the summer term. So we [new teachers] all begin in summer. Anyway, I still remember my first day of teaching. I can’t remember what year but I can feel the trepidation. Siyempre, the fear. I’m right in the middle of my MA; my second year of my Masters’. So yeah, I was with great trepidation [and] then I got to meet my first class. And, there’s one comment that really stuck with me throughout the year. There was this one guy who was seated to my right while I was teaching. (He eventually also became a faculty member.) And yeah, I was starting my first day on the job when he asked something. I don’t think he even addressed me as sir. He said, “Could you raise your voice a little louder?”

Anyway, of course, I got along very well with that first class. I don’t know if it’s a common experience among teachers that they get extremely fond of the first class that they teach. Pero for years after that, I still remember them – who where they, where the say.

OIKON: Any memorable students?

SIR DG: I don’t know if he still remembers me – the lawyer of the stars, si Adel Tamano. He was very active in music at that time and we formed our little band together. For a while. I was still then a younger teacher so I could fraternize with students, but I won’t recommend it now to other young teachers.

OIKON: What is your most memorable experience as a college student?

SIR DG: It was a Filipino class. I was very young [and] this was in [my] freshman year. We were supposed to have a little play in the classroom. I can’t exactly remember but I was kinda pissed off at that time – of course, when you are young, you are always pissed off – and there was this part in the play where I was supposed to be playing [the] guitar. Now I have this beat- up old guitar at home and – I don’t know, maybe I was inspired by Jimi Hendrix – I smashed it during the play.

The teacher sort of looked shocked at first, of course. But I was doing it as sort of part of the play and then I just explained it to him later on that it’s okay because that is a beat-up thing. It was already damaged and had no value and I explained it to him because his first reaction was “Oh! Sayang!”

OIKON: What is your most memorable experience as a college professor?

SIR DG: The first thing that comes to mind was…..On my second year of teaching, I met a student who was kind of…out of the ordinary. I was handling an Eco-102 class of Management Engineering majors. And, there was one very bright guy. Well, I don’t know what got into him but he went out and I thought he was going to the bathroom. Maybe he did. Pero when he came back, instead of going back to his seat, he just stood by the doorway and listened to the lecture by the door. Ganun. 

Now, I did not admonish him. I did not say “Hey, sit down,” because I knew he was a little different. And, I am an open-minded person: As long as he is not doing anything crazy, let him do that. Besides, he’s bright so I granted him that right.

This is Dr. Raymond Aguas of the Theology Department. Well, there was no trace of Theology in him at that time.

OIKON: What are the traits that you prize in a student?

SIR DG: I guess, I want a student who is a reflection of myself. I tend to be warmer, or I have a connection with people who are more easygoing. That’s number one. Pwede tayong mag-usap na walang ano, walang tension. Nandoon pa rin ‘yung vertical relationship na “You’re a student, I’m a teacher.” Hindi dapat mawala iyon. Pero, iyon na nga, dapat ang student, easygoing. Kasi, I think, you can’t afford not to be easygoing. Why do you need to be uptight all the time?

Now, I also admire the extremely analytical people – the people who can analyze things very well. Not just Eco. Pati social. It’s because you can analyze society in different ways.

‘Yun. Personality-wise, easygoing. But mentally, students that are very analytical.

OIKON: Who is your favorite economist and why?

SIR DG: Nagbabago-bago e. Para ring ano iyan, favorite singer, ‘di ba? Yesterday favorite singer mo si ganito, ngayon iba na. Ngayon, sa favorite economist, madami kasi akong interests. Siguro not a person na lang but a trait. My favorite economist would be somebody who explains well despite the intricacies of their work, their theories and their methods – somebody who explains well in writing.

For example, for a long time when I was still younger and I was still interested in macroeconomics, I used to admire an economist named Sebastian Edwards. He was a famous international macroeconomist. He’s Chilean and maganda kasi yung mga analysis niya – the phenomenon of devaluation, the phenomenon of trade liberalization, and how the sequencing of reforms matter.

Anyway, over the years, as I became enamored not with macro[economics] but with micro[economics], with game theory and industrial organization, siguro si John Nash. The concept of Nash equilibrium is one that I like very much. So, I have to say, si John Nash.

Although he is not an economist – he is a mathematician – but formulating that kind of idea, the Nash equilibrium. Very much it’s the heart of economics e – the idea that each person does what he thinks is best for him given that others would seek the best. Eco tayo e, dapat ganito tayo mag-isip.

Under the Spotlight features important movers and shakers in the economic advancement of the country.

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