2021 Best Undergraduate Professors: Manuel Arriaga, New York University Stern School of Business

Manuel Arriaga

New York University Stern School of Business

A phenomenal professor who has mastered the art of turning even dull computer science topics into engaging riddles and rewarding games. As his student, I seldom felt as though I was studying but rather exploring a world of puzzles. After mastering his research, Arriaga has found an inspirational drive in impassioning his students to pursue the field further.” – Purab Angreji

Manuel Arriaga, 41, is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, where he’s been in different capacities for the last 18 years. He earned his PhD at NYU Stern from 2004 to 2011. He taught there part-time from 2013 to 2017 and became a full-time faculty member in 2018. 

He currently teaches Intro to Programming and Data Science, Dealing with Data, and Programming in Python. He is also a fellow at Cambridge Digital Innovation.

Most of his 117 nominations come from students, many of whom said they were intimidated by subjects like data science and programming before walking into Professor Arriaga’s classroom, but his enthusiasm and ability to break down complicated subjects made his one of their favorite classes at NYU. 

A little over two years ago, I was still a lost junior who was struggling to find an academic passion. I walked into Professor Arriaga’s Intro to Programming class, having never written a line of code in my life,” Zeyad Dahab writes in his nomination. “Professor Arriaga has a very unique ability to turn even the most boring of topics into something engaging. This class gave me a very strong foundation for the basics of programming while also teaching me how to enjoy the process of learning how to code. I am currently working in a role that is very intensive on programming and I honestly don’t think that I would have chosen such a career path if it wasn’t for this class.”

Beyond the classroom, Arriaga is deeply involved in efforts to renew democracies through the power of civic participation.

One thing I am particularly proud of is having been credited with inspiring the global social movement, Extinction Rebellion, to include among its three demands the organization of citizens’ assemblies on how societies should respond to the climate emergency,” he tells Poets&Quants. “This ended up leading to the organization of several large-scale citizens’ assemblies on this topic throughout Europe. I see this work, together with my teaching, as my legacy for the younger generation.” 

His 2014 book “Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics” was a bestseller, and you can watch Russel Brand read excerpts from it here. Arriaga is now working on a second, related book on political discourse. He is co-founder of Fórum dos Cidadãos in Portugal which aims to bring “the informed, reasoned voice of ordinary citizens to the public debate.” He also serves on the board of directors of the Policy Jury Group and the Europe’s People Forum. 


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I am still waiting for that “aha!” moment to arrive. I ended up becoming faculty at a business school largely as the result of a long chain of chance events. It is true that I had a notion that being an academic was a reasonable option for me ever since I finished my undergrad. However, I hadn’t even heard about business schools back then. 

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? Because I teach exclusively tech courses, the topics that keep me busy on the non-teaching front might come as something of a surprise. My first book has the title “Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics”. (You might enjoy watching Russell Brand read parts of it) My new book project is about patterns in our everyday discussions about politics – and how recognizing these patterns can help us make better collective decisions. So, not much about programming or dealing with data in either of them.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be…  working longer hours on setting up a political party that will be entirely guided by citizens’ assemblies. Oh, and finishing that second book I mentioned above…

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I believe easily relating to students helps a lot. And the second most helpful thing is having vivid recollections of just how boring it was to sit in most classes I attended as a young person. This means that I try hard to avoid class time becoming a long monologue about technical concepts or where students merely watch me code. Instead, we have multiple, small now-do-it-yourself exercises throughout class. After each of these exercises has been completed, students themselves explain to the rest of the class how they solved it. Since coding skills per se are somewhat hard to make into something “fun,” I try to inject some lighter moments by having students shout out the data we will use in the examples developed in class. This might take the form of telling us which favorite movie they want us to search for using an API of movie reviews, or simply creating a list of text strings naming the students’ favorite drinks.

One word that describes my first time teaching: I wish I remembered!

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: Since I was a PhD student here at NYU Stern and faculty were easily accessible (they were literally across the hall from our offices), I had a pretty reasonable idea of what was involved. So I can’t say there was a big surprise element involved. It’s a pretty good life.

Professor I most admire and why: I had the chance to share meals and ideas with Jane Mansbridge during her stay in NYC and found that a huge inspiration.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? Interacting with students, especially when we get to share a laugh on a non-geek related topic, is always the highlight.

What is most challenging? The most challenging aspect is having to evaluate and grade students. I think of myself as a teacher, not an evaluator. Personally, I have no interest in contributing to even greater social stratification, regardless of it being on a “meritocratic” basis. The fact that grading is a part of this job is, for me, unfortunate and I find it challenging.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Humorous

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Grade-anxious.

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Really uninterested in the topic and a reluctant performer of grading-related duties.


What are your hobbies? In no particular order: spending time with people I am fond of; listening to live music in small venues; and bringing about the revolution. 🙂

How will you spend your summer? Partly teaching and partly working on establishing a political party back in Portugal.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: NYC or Lisbon

Favorite book(s): I am currently reading Joan Halifax’s Fruitful Darkness, which I am really enjoying. It’s a spiritual memoir of a renowned Buddhist teacher who has led an amazingly rich and varied life.

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? A couple of days ago I watched Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World and found it a beautiful and light-hearted exploration of some of the trickiest aspects of growing up and, more generally, being alive.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? I am very fond of bachata, cumbia and salsa. Recently I listened to this pearl for the first time: Anthony Campos’ Vete y Alejate de Mi.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Actively developing new ways to organize our economies differently. We have a chance to finally create decent societies for all that no longer rely on constantly threatening a vast majority of the population with material scarcity. Business schools could also play an important role in making sure that, as a society, we develop a much-needed sense of environmental perspective: providing non-essential goods and services mustn’t get in the way of preserving a viable and healthy planet.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… Well, you can guess my views from the answer above. Companies need to do a better job at being a part of the solution, not the problem.

I’m grateful for… The opportunity to have met so many students over the years, hopefully contributing something to their journeys.



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