Should Research Infect Teaching in Economics?

Contact: Prof. Monojit Chatterji
University of Dundee
Published December 2006

Research and teaching are the two core functions of most academics. In Economics there is a long tradition of individual academics wearing two separate and distinct hats to perform these two functions. In other Social Sciences and Humanities subjects, the distinction appears more blurred. Academics in these fields do appear to carry their research into the classroom, especially when teaching advanced undergraduates. Why does this phenomenon not percolate so much in Economics?

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. The first is that unlike our cousins in other Social sciences and Humanities, Economics has a very large and growing core material which is increasingly quantitative in nature. By the time we have finished teaching this core material there is less space to deal with field specialisations which are the most likely courses in which personal research can infiltrate teaching. The second factor is the quantitative nature of economics research. This obviously presents another barrier to presentation of research material as an integral part of a teaching programme.

It must surely be true that teaching one's own research in an accessible way is a highway to enthusing students and enhancing the classroom experience for both teacher and student. In this context it must be remembered that academic research is not the only research we do. Some of us are also engaged in more policy-based research for government and other agencies. This research may be more easily accessible to students since its conception and delivery is already aimed at non-economists.

It is also true that academic research can sometimes be simplified down to make it more accessible to students. For example, using general functional forms in the construction of an economic model can be replaced by special cases which are analytically easier to solve. Similarly some applied econometric work can also be explained in a heuristic but reasonably convincing manner. Indeed, one pedagogic advantage of taking this approach to bringing research into class, is that it can be used to explain to students why quantification is important. In the final analysis, the great gain of bringing research into class is that the teacher is expositing work he or she owns, and knows intimately and believes to be important. From the student's perspective, the sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing that they are operating close to the frontier must be exhilarating. So let's not be too shy or too modest and start infecting our students with our research!