He started the class with two jokes about how boring economics is. Maybe I have a bad sense of humor in not finding them funny, or maybe I'm right to think that the job of the instructor for an introductory course in any field is to attempt to inspire some enthusiasm for a field. Either way, this joke might have been funny once or twice, and some of his jokes actually were, but once he ran out of original jokes (which didn't take long) and started recycling the same jokes over and over again, this class became increasingly painful to sit through. He even joked that he took a six month course on how to make Principles of Economics interesting and learned nothing from it, but honestly, I wish he could've replaced some of his jokes with interesting content that might inspire us to take more economics courses.
As I read through the positive reviews, I am starting to wonder if he taught the summer session differently than how he teaches during the year. To be fair, I am not the typical student who enrolls in this course, as I am a SEAS student who had a significant background in economics yet had to take this course due to a technicality.
Here's my biggest problem with the class: I've been familiar with professors slanting an entry level course towards their personal or research interests, which sometimes adds a nice touch to a course, but Professor Steinberg took this to a new extreme. Other people might not notice this because this is their first course in economics, and therefore they might not be sure what an entry-level economics course should teach (i.e. what really are the principles of economics). However, any student who knows this much will be very disturbed with the macroeconomics portion of the course, at the very least, and as a result the lectures will be painful to sit through. However, you really don't have a choice, as the exams exclusively cover lecture material, much of which cannot be found in the book. Additionally, Professor Steinberg often fails to give important concepts names (for example, during the microeconomics portion of the course, he touched upon concepts including Marginal Rate of Substitution, Technical Rate of Substitution, Edgeworth Boxes, and the Lump-Sum Principle without ever explicitly stating any of these names. I only knew these names because of my previous economics background.) and the disadvantage of not naming the concepts that are used in class is that it makes it difficult to look them up or even refer to them later.
The syllabus that he emailed out to us prior to the first class seemed perfectly reasonable to me. However, as the course progressed, and particularly as we got into the macroeconomics half of the course, the instructor became decreasingly faithful to this syllabus, and that essentially is what caused the course to fall apart. For example, the syllabus set aside one day (keep in mind, this was summer session, so lectures met for two hours a piece) aside to talk about "Employment and Unemployment," which I though sounded reasonable. In reality, he spent four lectures talking about these statistics, including two on the BLS unemployment survey and two on the payroll survey. During this time, he passed out endless numbers of tables and reports to the class and explained to us why the numbers were either inaccurate or unrepresentative of what they were trying to measure. Another example of his deviations from the syllabus was the final lecture of the course was supposed to cover "Aggregate demand and aggregate supply." In reality, he mentioned that the model existed at the beginning of class, talked about it for literally two minutes, told us there would be no exam questions on it, and proceeded to spend the lecture talking about the Federal Reserve, which he had also discussed during the previous lecture. He added that if we planned to take future courses in economics, we should read up on the model of aggregate demand and aggregate supply.
There were two major problems with his substantial deviations from the textbook: 1) it rendered the textbook essentially worthless, as looking through the chapters he assigned often provided no information about the material he covered and 2) his lectures were quite literally the only source of material. This second point might not be such a problem if there had been problem sets or suggested problems to ensure that we had internalized the material, but neither existed. Additionally, Steinberg doesn't make much use of the blackboard at all (nor did he use powerpoint slides), especially when he is covering material that is not in the textbook. He'll write an occasional term or draw a graph during the microeconomics portion of the course, but the monotonous lecture style makes it difficult to separate the pointless digressions from the ones that are going to be tested. This was particularly true during the macroeconomics section of the course, during which a large portion of lectures consisted of him passing out handouts full of data and reading from them to us.
That being said, the exams were not difficult if you could pay attention in class and avoid silly mistakes. The midterms each consisted of 10 true/false questions (explain if false) worth 60% of the exam and 2 short answer questions (from a choice of 3 or 4) worth 40% of the exam. The final exam consisted of 10 true/false questions worth 40% of the exam grade and 3 short answer questions (from a choice of 4) worth 60% of the exam. They were essentially an exercise in regurgitating what he said and did during class. The true/false questions mostly emphasized facts, details and definitions rather than understanding of concepts. For the written problems, if the problem was a numerical one, he had done the exact same problem during class with different numbers. If it was a written question, it was something he had stated in detail during class and wanted regurgitated without any thought. For these questions, rather than asking for five reasons, we were asked to "explain fully," which is difficult to do on a topic that he spent two hours rambling about, but still there was no thought in copying the ideas that he had stated during class (provided that you remembered them). Again, the exams were your only chance to evaluate your understanding of the material presented in class, as there were no problem sets, suggested problems, reading or lecture notes that were in line with what was covered and emphasized in class.
Ultimately, my recommendation is to take this class if and only if you need it to satisfy a requirement, have no interest in economics, and are willing to go to every lecture and pay attention. If you are genuinely interested in economics for any reason whatsoever, take this class with different instructor who will thoroughly present the principles of economics. If you consider yourself an independent learner who doesn't learn much from lectures, or you like to employ multiple pathways to learning material, you will find this class quite frustrating.
Personally, I took this class as a Columbia SEAS student, both to fulfill the requirement and to be eligible to take more advanced economics classes. I like economics, and I believe it is a subject that everybody should take during their time at college, regardless of their major or eventual career plans. That being said, after taking this class, I question why SEAS requires all its students to take this particular course, as it is a class that requires little thought, emphasizes memorization over problem solving, and superficially treats many topics due to the disallowance of calculus in the course. As to this final point, I understand that eliminating calculus from the course makes it accessible to people of all disciplines and all backgrounds, but it also leads to superficial treatment of material. (For example, one time he wrote up a formula on the board relating quantity demands, price elasticity of demand and marginal revenue, and when someone asked where the formula came from, he admitted that he pulled it out of thin air. Then he said that it could be derived with calculus, but that we weren't responsible for that.) If a class is going to insist on treating material superficially in order to make it accessible to all students, that is fine, but such a course should not be required of students who are capable of understanding the material when presented more rigorously.
Note about the assigned textbook: The instructor sent out an email a week prior to the start of class telling us to buy a custom edition of Robert Hall and Mark Lieberman's economics publications containing chapters from both their microeconomics book and their macroeconomics book. After failing to find the ISBN code on Amazon, I just purchased a used edition of "Economics: Principles and Applications" for less than $20, figuring that a textbook for such a fundamental class as Principles of Economics couldn't really be customized. I later found out that the book he expected us to buy was only for sale at the Columbia bookstore for over $150, and this customized book had no index. Therefore, I was glad I bought the book I bought instead of the one he told us to buy. The only disadvantage was the need to do a little searching when the instructor or the syllabus referred to a page number or chapter number.