The Professor Is In: Q&A with P.V. Viswanath
To have a conversation with P.V. Viswanath, PhD, is to be immersed in his amazingly vast knowledge of every topic from religion and languages to finance and economics. When Viswanath isn’t in a classroom lecturing both undergraduate and graduate students on financial practices, he can be found advising undergraduate students on their honors theses in finance, or embarking on his newest endeavor to learn Chinese (he is fluent in several languages including French, Spanish, Tamil, and Hindi.) He, along with colleague Professor Rebecca Tekula, recently applied for a grant to perform research in urban microfinance—an innovative field in the economic world that investigates people in urban areas who are underserved by commercial banks. They will try to uncover why 8 percent of people in the entire U.S., and nearly 14 percent of New Yorkers, do not have a bank account at all. His research will compare un-banked citizens of NYC and Mumbai, where Viswanath was born and raised. He is extremely interested in anthropology and diverse cultures. Last summer, Viswanath visited a group of people in Northeast India called the Bnei Menashe, who believe that they are descended from the lost Israelite tribe of Menashe, expelled from Israel in the 8th century BCE by the Assyrians. The group is actively seeking to reestablish its connections to Jewish society and many members of the group wish to immigrate to Israel. His previous research includes innumerable academic papers on topics like law and marketing. He is certainly an asset to the Pace Community—and extremely fun to boot.
What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
My favorite class in high school was French. It was the first of many languages I’ve studied in my life. In undergraduate school, I found an interest in English literature and economics.
My least favorite class in school was biology. Where I went to school in Mumbai, we did not have a lot of great teachers in the sciences and you were not required to take science courses if it was not in your area of study.
What one thing or person made you passionate about your current career?
Since coming to Pace I have become much more passionate about teaching. I believe I have a very analytical mind and I’ve always loved to do research. But it’s only since coming to Pace, that I really developed my interesting in teaching. I’ve realized it is a great responsibility [to be a professor]. Sometimes when a student does not like a course, it is the way in which the material is presented. I make the effort to learn how to improve my teaching.
What quality do you most value in your students?
I value students who think about a question or topic and ask questions. Something I do in my class (which I know isn’t always popular) is I don’t always give an answer to a question. In some other classes, perhaps there is an answer to a question, but I think, in general, it is more important to be able to think critically. Especially in economics and finance students are always saying, “But what is the right answer? I need the answer!” but often times it is not about the answer, but learning how to think about a topic and evaluate it.
What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
Take courses outside your major and expand your horizons past your primary area of study.
If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you like to attempt? What profession would you not like to do?
I mentioned earlier how I didn’t have a lot of education in the physical sciences. And I’ve always enjoyed research. I am a researcher first. So, if I could I would study the physical sciences and perhaps become a research scientist.
I think I probably would be a terrible musician. But I do enjoy music… I learned to chant from the Torah. With each character there is a specific pitch to chant at and I’ve studied that.
What is your favorite book/TV show?
My wife and I really like Jay Leno—we try to watch him. And I really liked Cheers a long time ago. I read a lot. One genre I really enjoy is crime fiction like Clive Cussler, who writes thrillers that take place in New York. I also enjoy historical and locale-based crime fiction, e.g. by Qiu Xiao Long writes crime stories based in modern-day Shanghai. I was also a big fan of the Brother Cadfael series of murder mysteries set in 12th century England.
What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
I’d probably read—I also like movies and don’t see enough of them. In fact, I would also like to study film editing—which I hope to do eventually. It amazes me how editing of the film can completely change a movie. Even the film industry’s connection to finance is interesting. For example, if you’re a film maker with debt financing, you are likely to have to give up artistic control. Since the lender just wants to make sure he gets his money back and doesn’t participate in any upside in case the movie does really well, he wants to reduce his risk exposure. This is particularly true of studio financing. With debt financing, the director has much more control. S/he doesn’t have to worry about the studio insisting on changing a movie ending, for example.
What is your favorite journey/experience?
I traveled to China and taught in Beijing for three weeks. That was a very interesting experience because I was exposed to a whole different culture, but one that has been connected with India since the times of the Buddha.
What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
My favorite saying that I try to live by is from Hillel in the 2nd century. Don’t do something to someone else that you would not want done to you.
If you could have any five people, living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Muhammad, Adolf Hitler, and Ashoka, a 3rd century Indian king who was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism to China and throughout Asia. He underwent a change of heart after a very bloody war and became more interested in the welfare of his people.