An Interview With Professor Buckles
If you study at Vanderbilt, then Professor Buckles needs no introduction. But for those of you who don’t know him, Professor Stephen Buckles teaches economics at Vandy. Without a doubt, he is one of the most interesting and famous professors on campus, and if you are a prospective or even a current student, I highly recommend taking his classes.
This week, I had the opportunity to interview him and get to know him beyond the lecture hall.
Q) What sparked your interest in economics? Why did you decide to study it and then teach it?
Prof. Buckles: I took economics in college and I enjoyed the initial courses. I most enjoyed thinking about how the world works and from that I could learn a lot about what causes different things to happen. I saw economics as a way to really understand what’s going on in the world and how to make the world a better place. That’s what attracted me.
Q) What’s your favorite part about teaching?
Prof. Buckles: Just thinking about economics and how to best explain it. That’s not always easy to do, but thinking about relationships- ‘what if this happens and what’s going to happen as a result’-and trying to figure out the most interesting and clearest way to explain it. Economics has a lot of math behind it and I’m not always sure that non-economics majors want to see all the math, and I don’t think that they should necessarily see all the math because they may not go on in economics and therefore they don’t really need it. But the most exciting thing for me is thinking about current problems, policies and opportunities, and seeing the economics behind it to figure out what’s working and what’s not.
Q) What do you love most about Vanderbilt?
Prof. Buckles: From my judgment of students coming to Vanderbilt, the top students are certainly significantly better than they were five or ten years ago. They are fun to work with. They are inquisitive, bright, hardworking and ambitious, and I enjoy that. They also push me to do a better job. I like it when a student asks a really hard question and sometimes I don’t know the answer. That’s fun because it pushes me and I have to figure out how I am going to explain it to students so that they can understand. In some cases, I have to go investigate and think about it. That’s fun because I learn from that.
Q) Who is your favorite economist?
Prof. Buckles: (laughs) My favorite economist? Oh God! Right now, it’s Janet Yellen and the reason is that I think it (the chairmanship of Federal Reserve) is the most important economic job in the world, and it certainly is in the US. It’s exciting for me to see a woman in that slot. That’s a good thing to see, and I hope that it will be a signal to women that they can do really well in economics and move into the most powerful economic position in the country. Anyone in that job is very powerful, and certainly has to be very bright and thoughtful, and Janet Yellen definitely is. It’s great to see her there.
Q) If you didn’t teach economics, what would you do instead?
Prof. Buckles: (laughs) I have no idea! I haven’t thought about that answer in a long time. I ran a non-profit organization in New York for a number of years and it was active in working with corporations, foundations and government representatives. It was connected with economics and education, so I wasn’t far from being a teacher but I wasn’t teaching on a daily basis. That was very rewarding and I learned a lot from working there. It was an important experience and I wouldn’t exchange it for the world. I guess, maybe something like that? I haven’t really wanted to think about that question!
Q) In high school and college, what else did you like to study?
Prof. Buckles: I was fairly good at math in high school and I enjoyed it a great deal. I was also in debate and theater in high school. I wasn’t good enough to do either of them at the college level but those were my passions. I eventually lost my passion for mathematics as I learned more about economics. I certainly used that math for economics but it became less important to me.
Q) If you could give one piece of advice to economics majors, what would it be?
Prof. Buckles: In economics, we have a vocabulary, lots of data and definitions. It’s easy to get bogged down in the data, definitions and memorization but economics, at all levels, is fundamentally about thinking carefully and rationally. Economics majors should try to get as much practice as they can in thinking through problems and thinking about political, national, world and personal problems. It is effective to apply an economic way of thinking to solve all types of problems. That helps in terms of using economics, doing well in economic courses and constructing questions to ask faculty members. I don’t know if that’s the most important advice but it is one that I would certainly give.
Q) What’s your spirit animal?
Prof. Buckles: (laughs) My spirit animal? I didn’t expect that question! My spirit animal is a poodle. We had a poodle that we inherited from a neighbor who died, and his poodle was the smartest animal I have ever been around. She lived a very good life and she led us to a lot of places that we wouldn’t otherwise have gone to.
Q) What’s your favorite book?
Prof Buckles:I have had many favorites over the years and they change all the time. My favorite book right now is an economics book called Irrational Exuberance (by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller) because it’s a fun book in terms of talking about the most serious economic crisis we have had recently. It really turns economics on its head. Some of the things economists think don’t work and some of our understanding of how markets work and don’t work is incorrect. So, it’s a very challenging, well written and thoughtful book. It’s a challenging book for economics majors because it does say that maybe everything you’ve learned in an economics class doesn’t work all the time. Therefore, the book pushes us to think more deeply about economic events. At least, right now that’s my favorite book.
Q) Where would you like to go on your next holiday and why?
Prof. Buckles: (smiles) I’d like to go sailing off shore, which I have done a few times. It’s an experience that I really enjoy because you have some conflicting feelings going off shore sailing in a small sailboat. It’s a little bit intimidating and potentially dangerous. But once you get out there, you have this feeling of being very powerful because you can actually do it. You feel like you’re competent enough to do something that is not easy to do..that’s a really fun, really encouraging kind of feeling. But then you also, particularly at night, look up at the incredible stars and feel very small and tiny, like a little speck on the earth. So, that combination of being able to get out there and feeling confident, and then feeling very humble is refreshing to me. I’ve never sailed in the Mediterranean, but it would be so much fun.
Q) Last question…there is a rumor flying around that you have worked with Ronald Reagan. Is that true?
Prof. Buckles: No, it’s not! I’m not sure where that rumor comes from. In my job with the national non-profit, I did a lot of lobbying, and I did have the opportunity to meet two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, but that’s as close as I have come. I didn’t work with them but I lobbied for staff and some people who worked for them. I did meet them, but I have not worked for them or for Ronald Reagan. I have no idea how that rumor started!