Professor Nicholas Harrigan
A charmer with heart
Not long into the interview, Professor Nicholas Harrigan recounts a story of a famous travel writer who once visited Singapore in the 80’s, and asked a Singaporean taxi driver about what he thought about the mistreatment of a group of foreign workers. The taxi driver’s response?
“Oh, it doesn’t matter: They’re not Singaporean.”
Anecdotes such as these are what have made Professor Harrigan so adamant about the importance of developing ‘heart’ skills. “Heart skills are equally as important as hard and soft skills,” he argues. “The challenge of the modern Singaporean, the modern SMU student, the modern SMU faculty is to say, well, that it does matter, it does matter even if they’re foreign. And that’s about having heart skills.”
But Professor Harrigan firmly believes that the development of heart skills should be governed by pragmatism, not just blind altruism. “It’s about learning how not to be naïve. You need to know how the world works. You need to know how Singaporean society works.”
In the same vein, Professor Harrigan pulls out all the stops to ensure that his students are well-prepared for the trials and tribulations of the real world. “[One] problem with the classical method of teaching is that it is about memorisation, but what students really need is to practice; they need to apply concepts in real-life situations. Stressful, realistic, long-term practice is what they need.”
“How I implement that in my classes is, in all of my classes, students have to do a primary research project,” he explains. “The primary research project is a powerful and innovative learning tool because students are really thrown in the deep end. They are only given two or three basic guidelines. They are told: you have to collect your own data, you have to pick your own topic, you have to hand in 2,000 words and do a presentation at the end… Very quickly they learn that the hardest thing is coming up with an interesting idea. But thinking for yourself, and coming up with an interesting and new idea is what your boss is probably going to ask you to do within your first week or two in the real world. I try to introduce complex, open-ended, real-world problems so students are ready for this.”
Professor Harrigan has also found impromptu presentations to be particularly effective. “By [requiring my students] to get up on their feet and randomly be picked to present, these impromptu presentations force them to remember and apply the concepts, every single week.”
Lest the above paint a picture of Professor Harrigan as the uncompromising and grumpy type, you’ll be heartened to know that he is actually quite the opposite. In fact, he is so well-loved that students from the School of Social Sciences have bestowed him with a unique award—one that he prizes as much as the teaching excellence and innovative teaching awards he has won.
“In my first year here, I won the Charming Professor Award, awarded by the students of the School of Social Sciences. They somehow conspired to get all of us who won an award along to a special student night, and then gave out the award.”
“I was quite flattered to say the least.”
Come experience Professor Harrigan’s teaching for yourself, and Discover a Different U.