Nearly 5,000 miles east of Boston College lies the city of Istanbul, Turkey—a metropolitan jewel that sits on two continents, bridges East and West, and is the catalyst behind Can Erbil’s journey to BC and his study of economics.
Growing up in Istanbul, Erbil had a front-row seat to the Turkish economy, where he saw the impact that public policy can have on people’s daily lives.
“When I was living in Turkey, it was practically a closed economy,” he said. “It was a completely different structure from what we are experiencing here. I also lived through a time of persistently high levels of inflation, and I saw what it does to people and the livelihood of people and financial systems.”
This experience, coupled with his love for numbers and communication, ultimately led him to economics. Before this passion materialized, the young Erbil wanted to become an industrial engineer. It wasn’t until a family friend praised his instinctual talent for talking and told him a career in economics may be one where he can exhibit this talent that he changed course.
After doing some research in his final year of high school, Erbil found that economics is the best of both worlds, he said—he could combine his love for numbers and communication into a profession that would suit his work style.
“It’s kind of like the engineering of the social sciences, so you just crunch the numbers like the engineers, but you talk about it, and you try to make good public policy,” he said. “The very short talk with [my family friend] made a big influence on me.”
As an undergraduate studying economics at Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s top universities, a variety of opportunities opened up for Erbil, including the possibility to pursue a graduate education in the United States. One of his professors saw Erbil’s potential when he served as a teaching assistant and research assistant for him and recommended that 22-year-old Erbil apply to BC. After a pen-and-paper application process, Erbil was accepted into BC’s economics master’s program and arrived on campus in 1993.
Erbil was a driven student, and took the time to deeply engage in his studies while taking advantage of on-campus leadership roles. As the vice president of the graduate student association and the president of the international student graduate student association, Erbil made himself known as a leader among graduate students at BC.
He received his master’s degree in economics in 1996. After earning his Ph.D. in economics from BC in 2001, he went on to become an assistant professor at Brandeis University, before returning to BC in 2012 as an associate professor.
Today, Erbil is a professor in the economics department and has over 25 years of teaching experience. He has taught courses on international trade, macroeconomic theory, and many more, but perhaps he is best known for teaching Principles of Economics—a one-semester, lecture-based course, focusing on the foundational aspects of economics.
“I think [the course] can be really impactful if it is taught well,” Erbil said. “My Principles professor made a really big influence on me. … And I always thought that I’m gonna push myself as much as I can to reach his level of excellence—and I’m still doing that. I truly believe that a good professor is a student at heart, and I continue to learn.”
Chair of the economics department Christopher Baum said that Erbil has risen to the challenge of teaching a course like Principles, where there is a great variety in students’ interest levels in the subject.
“He’s always done a very good job with the large Principles class,” Baum said. “It’s a difficult task because you’re trying to pitch this content to people who have this as their last economics class and for people who might continue and make it into their major. You want to have the appeal to both, and he’s someone who can do that very well.”
Baum, who first met Erbil in 1993 when he was beginning his graduate studies at BC, said Erbil is a perfect fit for BC’s economics department, considering the breadth of experience he brings to the table, as well as the research interests he holds in current issues.
Erbil’s passions outside the classroom enable his students—of which there are 500 just this semester—to learn from a professor who utilizes real-world issues in the classroom. One of these students is Charlie Schulz, MCAS ’25, who said Erbil stands out as an engaging professor.
“Everyday you walk into blasting music, and he takes requests,” Schulz said. “[In] a lot of classes, it’s really quiet, but when you walk into his class everybody’s talking, and it’s a good atmosphere. He’s very engaging, and it seems like that’s his mission to engage and get people interested.”
Erbil’s curiosity and desire to learn were particularly helpful while teaching online during the pandemic. Two years before COVID-19 sent BC students home, Erbil was one of the very few faculty members who enrolled in a workshop on how to teach online, which was open to all faculty. He completed the introduction, intermediate, and advanced classes to get a solid grasp on the fundamentals of online instruction.
Once the pandemic hit, Erbil began implementing what he learned from the workshop into his instruction.
“I had a plan, and I knew what would work and what wouldn’t,” Erbil said. “For me, it was maybe four or five times more work than I had ever done, but I wanted to make sure that the online teaching and learning platform that I created was second to none … I made sure that there were elements that made it even better than teaching in person.”
Erbil spent much of summer 2020 building a studio for teaching, learning, and recording at home, he said. He took digital photography and video editing courses in order to create the best teaching environment possible, he said.
Erbil didn’t stop with helping out his own students—he also worked with his colleagues on ways to improve their online instruction, a move that Baum praised.
“He … put a tremendous amount of effort into the remote learning experience when it became clear that that’s the way it’s going to be back in March 2020,” Baum said. “He not only did a very good job with his own class, but he did a lot to help colleagues who were struggling with how to make this work … He was one of the most capable people in handling that transition.”
Although Erbil is most prominently known for his role as an economics professor, his work in the field expands far beyond the boundaries of teaching.
Outside teaching, much of Erbil’s time is spent doing economic modeling with organizations like EcoMod—the largest economic modeling network in the world—where he is the director of the Modeling School.
Boasting a large network and international alumni base, the organization held workshops before the pandemic in Prague in the summer and in Singapore in the winter, both at which Erbil taught.
Erbil, who speaks Turkish, German, and some Italian, is also a research fellow for the Economic Research Forum, which produces policy and research debate in Middle East economies. He also serves on other boards that foster his knowledge of international economics and provide for valuable experience that he can utilize in the classroom.
“It’s very important to me that I also stay active outside of the classroom because there is a big spillover effect with research and teaching,” Erbil said. “These are important for sharing the applied view of economics, especially when they have big questions about investments for the future.”
Erbil’s initiatives outside of the classroom also relate to innovation and technology, as well as issues like economic inequality, which Erbil has been focusing more on recently.
Following the murder of George Floyd, Erbil penned an op-ed examining income inequality and laying out the case for structural change in America. He also published a policy brief with BC professor Geoffrey Sanzenbacher on how to teach inequality in a principles course, and he co-taught a summer course at Harvard on economic inequality.
He said that his new focus on inequality is important to him, but he is also interested in making economics more understandable to a wider audience. He points out that economists do well in their professions, but they need to convey their knowledge in better ways.
“We do a good job but very few people understand what we are doing,” he said. “We are not good communicators. I am actually committed to having students who are better communicators than us—so that’s my biggest overall big picture goal.”
As the only person out of his Ph.D. class who entered academia, Erbil is working toward this goal by teaching his students how to effectively communicate economic policies and by conducting research outside of class. He emphasized that he enjoys the freedom of being able to set his own research agenda, as well as the academic environment that comes with being a professor.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “If you enjoy what you are doing, you are always working to do it better and at the end it shows, which is something that I also recommend to many of my students.”
Featured image by Molly Bruns / Heights Staff