Written by Phuong Le
Setting up an interview with Professor Jim Bryan was not an easy task. I found myself waiting outside of Brownson 106 where he teaches Principles of Microeconomics for 10 minutes after the class ended. Afraid that I might miss him, I looked inside the classroom only to find him engaging in a spirited conversation with several students.
During Bryan’s career which spans nearly 30 years at Manhattanville College, this is not the only indicator of his dedication to teaching. He has a busy schedule, which was evident when he flipped through his agenda to find a date for our talk, because he is always willing to make appointments with students who would like to discuss their studies and concerns. Looking at a pile of thank you notes that were scattered on his office desk, one can see the influence that Bryan has had on Manhattanville students over the years, both academically and personally.
Bryan comically described his path to his career in teaching as being “produced by a variety of accidents rather than visions.” Even though he is now a Professor of Economics, his undergraduate studies in the Great Books Program at University of Notre Dame focused on history, literature and philosophy. Bryan was attracted to the concentration due to his interest in major traditions of Western intellectual thoughts. Growing up, Bryan’s father kept a set of 52 volumes of great books of the Western world, which could also have contributed to his passion. After college, he went to University of Virginia to study a completely different field and earned a Ph.D. in Economics.
“I went for economics because I was, at that time, sure that I didn’t want to teach,” he said with a smile. “I thought I wanted to save the world and economics is probably the way to do that.”
During graduate school, however, Bryan became a teaching assistant and realized that a career in education could be much more wonderful than he had ever thought. “Like many people, I’d like to feel that what I do causes change, good change,” he said. “And I became aware that one of the more satisfying and definite forms of change was just working with students, either one-on-one or in groups, which I thought could really make a difference.”
Since coming to Manhattanville in 1984, Bryan has played an active role in making valuable changes at the College, especially in terms of academics. He was the Dean of Studies at Manhattanville from 1987 to 1991. In this position, he enjoyed working with individual students and chairing a committee to develop proposals for curriculum reform. Bryan found the advising aspect of the position to be the most rewarding.
“When someone comes to me with problems,” he shared, “and because I’m further down life’s path, I can suggest the options that they are not aware of and make it possible for them to make more informed decisions than they would have otherwise.”
Bryan then became Provost of the College from 1991 to 1997 and he is now the Chair of the Core Curriculum committee. Aside from being an advisor to majors in his department, he is also a first-year advisor to freshmen in his seminar class called “To Be Human…” With no focus on economics, the class is an extension of Bryan’s own interest in human nature. The course materials range from biological examination to psychological research of human behaviors, which sharply contrast economics’ extremely simplistic view of human beings as creatures who are able to make decisions rationally. While the class does not specifically cater to economics majors, Bryan believes that students who are interested in the field can find the materials enlightening.
“In economics and finance, gradually there is an attempt to develop subfields called behavioral economics and behavioral finance which are about developing more realistic models of how people do make decisions,” Bryan said. “So this seminar which does directly connect with economics can help students speculate about some of this trend.”
Bryan also shared that being a first-year advisor is significantly different from working as an Economics advisor. Freshmen are usually unsure of their academic and professional options and he will assist students in figuring out their own strengths and transitioning either from high school to college or from one culture to another. Bryan’s favorite part of teaching is interacting with students and helping them not only understand difficult concepts but also make these theories part of their own thinking. His least favorite part, however, is grading, which he considers rather antisocial to converse with a blue book or an essay. As a result, Bryan has sometimes offered students an option to take oral tests in certain classes to engage students and fully understand their academic perceptions.
Indeed, over the years, Bryan has always maintained a close relationship with his students. He personally holds study sessions in the evening to be sure students are well-prepared for upcoming tests. His office is full of memorabilia and gifts he has received from students from all over the world. He also keeps in touch with alumni; even those who preceded his time at Manhattanville College. He credits the small college environment at Manhattanville for enabling him to play a more significant role in students’ lives.
Describing himself as an introspective person, Bryan enjoys reading and observing nature in his free time. Despite his many interests, his greatest passion remains the study of economics. “Economics is fundamentally about decision making,” he said, “and it allows for the acquisition of concepts that can improve decision-making skills and help people deal with their irrationality as human beings in a more constructive way. Understanding how economics systems function is an important thing for people as they debate questions of public policy that are encountered in daily life.”
If you have any unforgettable memories of Professor Bryan during your time at Manhattanville College, or to request another faculty spotlight, please share with us in the comment section!