Aaron Swartz links to this rant from Philip Greenspun on university education. Despite Swartz’s blurb, I didn’t actually see any “new ideas” in Greenspun’s article. (I agree with Greenspun’s advice that teachers not grade their own students, but no, this isn’t a new idea, it’s just a good idea that’s difficult enough to implement that it usually isn’t done).
That’s ok. New ideas are overrated. But this bit was just hilarious:
One argument for traditional lecture-based teaching is that
storytelling is a primal human activity. If the cavemen in the movie
2001 were learning from great storytellers, surely it must be the best
way to teach today.
A problem with this approach is that it depends on finding millions
of great storytellers.
- 0-4:30: name of course, name of professor, names of TAs, pictures
of TAs [all stuff that could easily have been on a handout or Web
- 4:30-5:15: bragging about how many important people on Wall Street
took his course, bragging about how great the course is even for
people who aren’t going on to Wall Street
- 5:15-6:20: talking about how every human endeavor involves
finance, e.g., if you’re a poet it will help you get published to know
how finance works [my haiku: AIG bankrupt; your taxes gone to Greenwich; no one
hears your screams]
- 6:20-7: talking about an unrelated course, Econ 251, and who
taught it in previous years [big excitement at a university: some guy
other than the usual lecturer taught it because Kahuna #1 was on leave]
- 7-10: history of why two intro finance courses exist, glorious
biography of teacher of the other course, [after several minutes, we
learn that the other course has a bit more math]
- 10-11:30: show of hands for who is interested in organic chemistry,
discussion of how Robert Shiller is reading about this because he has
such broad intellectual interests [implicit comparison to finance
wizards, though Shiller is not able to cite an example of how organic
chemists managed to bankrupt their shareholders and wreck the world economy]
- 11:30-15:00: writes authors of textbook on blackboard, says it is
“very detailed”, discusses reactions of previous classes of students
to this book, talks about his vacation in the Bahamas with some other
important guy, reading textbook by the pool unlike the other stupid
tourists who were reading novels. Discussion of what number the
current edition is. “I met a really prominent person on Wall Street”
who told him that his son had dropped out of the course because the
textbook was too hard. Apparently Yale students are too stupid/lazy to
read this book intended for undergrads at schools with more motivated
- 15-16: discussion of how library is obsolete in the Internet age,
how Franco Modigliani is 2nd author of primary textbook, a Nobel Prize
winner, and “my teacher at MIT”
- 16-18: discussion of assigning Jeremy Siegel’s Stocks for the
Long Run book and how it has sold more than 1/2 million copies [Why
do we need to pay $50,000/year to Yale to find books that are stacked
out front in Barnes and Noble]
- 18: discussion of assigning his own book, Irrational Exuberance,
and how he managed to time both the stock market crash of 2000 and the
housing market peak in 2005
- 19-20:15: all of these are on sale at Labyrinth Books, an
independent bookstore, as well as the campus bookstore. Talks about
how he likes to support independent bookstores. Talks about New Haven
bookstore that went out of business some time earlier. Helpfully
provides street address for defunct bookstore.
- 20:15-21: discussion of lecture and teaching section schedule;
there are six problem sets and they are due on Monday
- 21-22:30: this is one of the biggest classes at Yale [because we are
such great teachers]; how grades are determined, e.g., what percentage
are problem sets and exams, but then we use judgment as well [so
perhaps you can ignore the percentages just given]
- 22:30: writes first topic on the board, “Behavioral Finance”, and
begins what might be considered actual teaching.
Does it get better after the first lecture? Let’s look at Lecture
2, in which the first 10 minutes are spent on irrelevant story
from Hindu scripture. From 20:30-22:20, the Binomial Distribution
formula is written on the blackboard with no explanation:
f(x) = P^x (1-P)^(n-x) n!/(n-x)!
all two minutes are taken up with writing (incorrectly; there is an
unbalanced parenthesis) and asking if people can read his
handwriting. [Compare to two minutes reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binomial_distribution.]
A bit later Shiller presents the moderately scary formula for a Gaussian
Distribution with no explanation and says “I assume you’re
familiar with this”. Students at Yale must be very intelligent indeed
if they can understand the Binomial Formula and Gaussian Distribution
simply by looking at an expression. But if they are so smart and
math-nerdy, how do we explain this sequence:
- 50:30: begins ad nauseum explanation of present value calculation
- 53:40: we figure out the value of $1 a year from now
- 63: wraps up after having spent 13 minutes explaining something
much simpler than the Binomial Distribution, which had been dispensed
with in 2 minutes
This is one of the most popular courses at one of America’s greatest
Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 1.7 million Americans work as
college teachers (source). If Yale can’t
find teachers who can use classroom time effectively, what hope is
there for universities with less money and prestige?
The short answer, of course, is that Yale doesn’t hire people because they’re good teachers; it hires them because they’re good researchers. Also, Greenspun doesn’t offer any support for his follow-up claim that the University of Pheonix delivers “the same quality” as Yale. Maybe so, but I’d like to see the evidence.
It really doesn’t matter though: my what’s relevant here is how hilarious and horrifying Greenspun’s description is of Shiller’s lecture. Those of us who have ever been students or teachers anywhere will recognize the pointlessness of this lecture (at least as described by Greenspun; I didn’t actually click though the link and watch the video), the sense in which, one minute after the class begins, the instructor and students are already counting the minutes until it’s all over.
Even more to the point, I recognize myself in some of that horrible lecture summary. OK, there are some things I know about and do better: I try (although do not always succeed) in avoiding straight lecturing, I have the students work together in pairs, and, yes, I follow the advice I was told many years ago and never never never begin the first class with the name of the course, name of the instructor, etc. I do try to jump in right away and get the students thinking.
That said, somewhere around the fifth week, I usually run out of steam, often lapse into lecturing and even telling stories that to me seem relevant but really have nothing to do with the class or with anything the students could possibly care about. I think if you videotaped a semester of any of my courses, you’d find some truly horrible, mockable times.
P.S. I wrote this a couple of days ago and put it in storage for some future slow blogging week. But then I noticed Seth blogged on it also, so I thought I’d add whatever insights I had from my personal experience. i agree with Seth and several of his commenters that the primary value of the long Greenspun bit above is that it’s funny (and also a bit chilling, to think of what would happen if someone sat in my class and transcribed it with malicious intent!). I wouldn’t take it as any sort of serious criticism of Shiller, merely that Shiller (a) isn’t up-to-date in his teaching methods and (b) probably has little motivation to change his teaching style, given that he’s amply rewarded for what he’s doing now. And his class, despite its flaws, may be great for the students. There’s a lot of variation in what can work.