Please, please don’t let this guy sit in on any of my classes!

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.

Consider lectures by Robert Shiller, e.g., Econ
252, Financial Markets: Lecture 1
(alternate location):

  • 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
, 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]

A bit later Shiller presents the moderately scary formula for a Gaussian
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.

7 thoughts on “Please, please don’t let this guy sit in on any of my classes!

  1. 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…

    …wraps up after having spent 13 minutes explaining something much simpler than the Binomial Distribution [ie, present value calculations], which had been dispensed with in 2 minutes.

    I spent a couple minutes trying to understand the criticism. By Shiller's own quoted words, he expects students to recognize the expressions. Hence, not bothering to explain them further. This is Econ 252, there's probably a math prereq. Two minutes to remind students of expressions they've seen before, and thirteen minutes to introduce a simple but possibly new topic, seems pretty reasonable.

  2. One small note regarding comments on this lecture:

    Yale uses a "shopping period" system for selecting classes which differs from many universities. For most courses you don't register for them prior to the start of the semester – there are two "shopping period" weeks where you get to basically go to whatever classes you want to and then after 2 weeks you submit your final schedule with the 4 or 5 classes you've chosen.

    This system means that the first couple lectures, especially the first lecture, are less about introducing course material than in convincing students to take your class. (Now there are disadvantages and advantages to this system – it is less efficient, but also leads to better student/course matching – but that's another story).

    Consequently, critiquing university education, or Yale education using the first class shopping period lecture is really cherry-picking your data.

  3. Uh, did anyone notice the binomial coefficient is given incorrectly above?

    I sat through some time series lectures Bob Shiller gave at MIT (a very, very long time ago). They were quite good, though the rambling stream of consciousness style is recognizable.

  4. Alex:

    Not sure how it actually plays out in the lecture, but it would take me a minute looking at a gaussian distribution equation before recognizing it for what it is. I know how to work with it, but almost never go directly back to the equation when trying to calculate it. If they know what it is and how to use it, why bother to write the equation?

    If they don't, it seems appropriate to provide more than just the equation in the course of the lecture.

  5. Greenspun's initial examples of a lack of common sense or initiative in the two young students have nothing what so ever to do with university education. Common sense, confidence, initiative cannot be taught or instilled by people like Schiller even if they tried. Greenspun's suggested changes to the american education system, namely independent testing, less lecturing, open offices etc will not inspire dull or bored students into becoming curious and full of confidence and initiative.

    As a student what I liked the most about my favorite classes was the excitement a teacher showed towards a topic or a subject and the narrowed list of resources, books, articles, papers and projects that they guided me to. The rest was up to me. My interest and my initiative in following up on my own time.

    I found Greenspun's rant to be a poor argument. More than good university teachers, what will probably help, I'm guessing, are primary school teachers or middle school teachers or parents or adults who inspire children with their enthusiasm, initiative and actions. Even so, I don't know if it is even possible for every single person to be inspired by anything.

  6. Depends on the university, but sometimes its a good idea to make sure everybody's in the right place.

    I was waiting for the first session in a graduate functional analysis class to begin when somebody none of us knew came in and plopped down. The instructor asked her if she was in the right place to which she replied "uh-huh, it's a math class." So he started class. Two minutes later she was running for the door.

Comments are closed.