YOUNG: In defense of Shiller

On Monday afternoon, a cell phone appeared to go off several minutes into the Introductory Macroeconomics lecture. Then another identical ring emerged from the din. And another. Soon, a cacophony of rings from around the lecture hall succeeded in bringing professor Robert Shiller’s discussion of monetary policy to a halt.

“I think someone’s phone is going off,” he said.

What began as a jovial prank soon degenerated into a malicious, personal and uncalled for attack on a faculty member.

“Rise!”

One student’s scream prompted a handful of students holding bells to stand. Two of them — a boy and a girl — marched towards the stage. They shook Shiller’s hand, and handed him a few objects including a paper scroll and a bell. He fumbled trying to place them on his podium. Students glanced around in uneasy silence, confused by what was unfolding before their eyes.

“For talking about your Nobel Prize more than anyone else, we present you with the Yes-bell Prize,” announced one of the bell-carriers.

The handful of students proceeded to pick up their backpacks and walk out of the lecture hall. Their hijinks may have been intended to generate laughter, but the room was left quiet. Some sensed that a prank had gone too far — that a tacit code had been broken.

Professor Shiller struggled to comprehend what had just occurred. Visibly flustered, he took a couple of minutes to resume his lecture.

“I hadn’t even planned on mentioning the Nobel Prize today,” he said.

The episode that interrupted his lecture was no prank. It was rude, disrespectful and mean-spirited. It was glorified bullying of a Yale professor.

More than simply disrupt a class, the bell-ringing perpetrators attempted to publicly humiliate a faculty member. Without warning, they criticized him for referring to his Nobel Prize during lectures and did so in front of a room full of students.

Despite how well Shiller handled the situation, he did not deserve the treatment he received.

As a faculty member, Shiller deserves a baseline of respect. The success of any class depends on an environment of trust and respect. Trust allows students and faculty to openly share their ideas and questions without fear of being judged. A sense of mutual respect makes academic debate, which aims to arrive at a better understanding of the material, possible. By mocking him, the bell-ringers violated the trust and respect that underlies constructive learning, and dismissed Shiller’s experience as an educator. They broke an unwritten rule at the core of the student-teacher relationship.

The students who objected to the content of his lectures could have opted to take another course. If they had opinions about his teaching, they were free to privately share them with him or his teaching fellows. A malicious stunt to embarrass him, to put it mildly, was not the best way to encourage changes in his teaching style.

In fact, in my time in the class, I have not found Shiller’s occasional references to his Nobel Prize to be out of line or instances of bragging. As a marking of his excellent research career and an honor that has dramatically impacted his day-to-day life, the prize serves as context for certain social encounters he describes and places he has been. It explains why he participated in a conference with the other 2013 Nobel Laureates, why Yale uploaded a personal interview with him and why journalists at the World Economic Forum converged on him with questions about the Argentine peso. It would be notable if he tried not to talk about the prize given how much it has affected his life. Some students may consider it immodest to talk about one’s own accomplishments, but it would be dishonest not to do so. The expectation that he act as if the Nobel Prize never happened is neither fair nor realistic.

A large number of his students are grateful for the privilege of taking a course taught by such a luminary in the field. When he was awarded the prize, President Salovey encouraged the Yale community to share in each other’s achievements. “As we bask in the reflected glory of the excellence that we experienced at Yale,” he wrote, “We all become better people, unified in celebrating this grand institution.” Instead of stigmatizing any mention of our successes, we should welcome them.

Shiller’s decision to teach an introductory economics course is a boon for Yale and a boon for his students. Nobody ever claimed introducing the field of macroeconomics to a 400-person class would be easy, and Shiller has done a remarkable job on his first try.

Professor Shiller and other faculty members make Yale an extraordinary place. They deserve better from us. And so do we.

ZACH YOUNG is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at zach.young@yale.edu .

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