Research and Teaching: a personal perspective

Contact: Prof. Tony Brewer
University of Bristol
Published December 2006

Good research and good teaching go together, I think, not primarily because one influences the other, but because both are driven by enthusiasm for the subject. Economics is not a body of truths or results to be memorized and reproduced, but a way of thinking about questions and a body of tools and methods that can be applied to problems. It is not something you learn and then know, but something you learn how to do. Our primary aim as teachers should be to get our students to think like economists, which means to think like researchers in economics, even if they can only apply their skills to simpler problems. Teachers who can put that across are likely to want to do it themselves, and active researchers will want to convey the excitement of the subject to others.

It is admittedly rare to be able to give students one's own research papers to read. A paper aimed at a professional journal is, after all, a rather artificial form aimed at an audience of fellow specialists who are familiar with the basic ideas but need to be convinced, in detail, about relatively minor pints of novelty, about the exact way data is handled, the econometric techniques used, and so on. But that does not mean that research cannot feed, really quite directly, into teaching. The issues and the basic ideas are often accessible even to first or second year students. It is possible to discuss how the literature has evolved, what the problems are, what kind of evidence is relevant, and what sort of conclusions emerge. Even when it comes to lecturing to beginners on basic economics, an active researcher still has an insight into the process of research, the way to think about problems, and so on, which can be drawn on for examples. It is not a question of deliberately and artificially dragging your own research into the teaching - rather, the research is part of the background that you draw on, along with other people's research, the results of reading the current journals, attending research seminars, and so on.

My own position in recent years has been rather untypical, in that my current research focuses on the history of economic ideas. (I was a more mainstream teacher and researcher for years before that.) My research consists centrally of reading and thinking - reading and re-reading the work of past economists, reading the secondary literature about them and reading other writers (not necessarily economists) who provide the intellectual context to their work. For the course I teach on the History of Economic Thought, the ideal preparation is precisely to read the original works, the secondary literature, and so on. The two overlap almost completely, in a way that work in more technical areas probably does not. Of course, what I say in the lectures is often well known (to scholars, not to the students), while what I publish has to focus on what others have missed or (in my opinion) got wrong. But I am sure I do a better job in teaching about people who I have done research on than on those who I have not. I know the material better, I am more confident in handling it and presenting it, I have a clearer feel for what is important, and so on. (Some of) my research feeds pretty directly into (some of) my teaching. I also find that teaching - explaining, answering questions, following up references of one sort or another - often generates ideas for research and (I hope) prevents me from getting the narrow tunnel-vision which is the occupational disease of the specialized researcher.