The Trouble with Robert Shiller

Amusing Philip Greenspun rant about university teaching, with his case in point being a lecture by economist Robert Shiller:

Consider lectures by Robert Shiller, e.g., Econ 252, Financial Markets: Lecture 1
  •  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 site] 
  • 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 students. 
  • 15-16: discussion of how library is obsolete in the Internet age, how Franco Modigliani is 2nd author of primary textbook, a Nobel Prize winner, and “my teacher at MIT” 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.

Admittedly, this was the first lecture in the course, but it’s still an amusing summary.


  1. I went to a Canadian University, a very small one at that, and watching these lectures had me questioning what is the difference between ivy league and regular universities. Of course the answer is as obvious as it sounds; not much. Primarily, you are paying to study under profs who are at the top of their field, and as one other poster says, to form connections with other students who will go on to top jobs. Sounds like a good enough reason to go, all else being equal.
    Regarding Schiller as a lecturer: I think he is exceptional. He is a great story teller and he doesn't over complicate his lectures where it doesn't need to be. He leaves the more complicated aspects for the readings, tutorials, and problems sets – just as he should. His personality is warm and sincere. He seems like a very unpretentious man, even in spite of his obvious reverence for Academia and the historical figures he has worked along side.

    This is his life's work, he wants to put it in perspective and to create an excitement in his young students, just as it was likely soled to him years ago. Nothing wrong with this. It helps us to sense that excitement for ourselves and makes us engaged. If you are cynical however, you will feel as Mr. Greenspun does, putting spin on everything that comes from Mr. Schiller's mouth.

    To see how good Bob Schiller is as a speaker, compare him with John Geankoplos (ECON251). Geanokoplos should not be teaching undergrads. The guys is clueless and has no skill at teaching.