Teaching and Research: Inseparable for What I Do

Among the recent recommendations for reform of university funding is a proposal to separate teaching budgets from research budgets. In theory, this might be a good idea or it might not be, but in practice it would be impossible for me.

I teach American history. I have been doing so for 30 years. I teach beginning undergraduates in large lecture classes, graduate students in small seminars, and majors and non-majors in these and other settings. Meanwhile, I write books—works of history, biography, politics, and analysis.

It would be beyond my ability to tell where my teaching ends and my research and writing begin. My teaching benefits my research in that by the time I decide upon a topic for a book, I have been teaching about it typically for many years. Last year I published a book on the Gilded Age. The publication date was 2010, but the research began when I prepared my first lecture on the Gilded Age in the early 1980s. In the intervening decades I tested ideas and interpretations on my students; after I started writing I had them read draft chapters. The book benefited substantially from their input, as I gratefully noted in the acknowledgments page.

Conversely, my research benefits my teaching. In 2008, I published a biography of Franklin Roosevelt. While I was writing the book my head was full of Roosevelt and what his actions and policies meant for the country. My students heard the debate between the New Dealers and their opponents; I didn’t have to point out, because the students drew the connection themselves, that the 1930s debate has been recapitulated during the last several years in the arguing over the mounting federal deficit and what to do about it. My lecture on the sex lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt came straight from my research, and it riveted students to their seats sufficiently that I had to throw them out when the hour ended. What students take from my lectures, overall, is a recognition that history is filled with fascinating stories—stories that spring from my research and fuel my passion, which helps fuel theirs.

To me, teaching and writing history are part of a single endeavor: to understand the past, to know our forebears, to heed their wisdom, and to learn from their mistakes. I wouldn’t want to separate the two parts of this endeavor even if I could. I’d miss half the fun.

H. W. Brands is a professor of history at UT. 


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