Fun article on Middlebury economist David Colander includes:

He is also a prominent representative of another clan, the enthusiastic and committed teachers of undergraduates.

Members of this clan are not so rare, being fairly freely distributed in colleges and universities around the world, but they are always to be found in the best economics departments among the best American small colleges — such as Swarthmore, Wellesley, Williams, Amherst, Grinnell, Carleton, Pomona and, in his case, Middlebury.

“Research is nice,” says Colander, “but good teaching is priceless.”

So true. And true at Williams for me 20 years ago. But is it still true today? I hope so, but I worry. Consider the recently redone homepage of the economics department. Here is the (appropriate and accurate) bragging that the department provides about its research.

Department members present results of their ongoing research at weekly economics faculty seminars throughout the academic year. The Department has recently been ranked first among economics departments at national liberal arts colleges based on research publications (J. Hartley and M. Robinson, “Economics Research at National Liberal Arts Colleges: School Rankings,” Journal of Economic Education, Fall 1997). In addition to the faculty’s own research, the Department and the Center for Development Economics regularly bring in economists from other institutions to present work in progress. The Department has three working paper series — Research Memoranda on economic development topics, Discussion Papers from the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education, and Research Papers on all other topics. These papers are distributed to a large number of individuals and institutions in the U.S. and other countries and we receive their working papers in exchange.

The department is part of NEUDC network, a major forum for the field of development economics. The location and sponsorship of the annual NEUDC conference rotates among the organizing institutions: Williams College, Boston University, Cornell University, Harvard University and Yale University.

Here is what it has to say about teaching.

Now, that isn’t totally fair. There is a bit (below the research section) about courses offered and the like. But there is no bragging, nothing about small classes or committed teachers. The word “tutorial” appears nowhere.

If the teaching section of your department homepage is indistinguishable from that of a research university, then you may be (and definitely appear to be) quite a distance away from Mark Hopkins and the log.

No one comes to Williams (or should come to Williams) because the economics department does a lot of research. They come to Williams for the teaching. Does the Economics Department recognize that?

Imagine that you are a high school student interested in economics and trying to choose between, say, Harvard and Williams. The only thing that a comparison of their websites make clear is that the Harvard professors are, unsurprisingly, much more famous and well-published. There is no information about how much more substantive interactions you would have with your professors at Williams. (I would not expect Harvard to advertise the lack of interaction.)

I was having lunch with a Harvard senior a few months ago. I mentioned that, at Williams, virtually all the written comments on papers were made by actual professors. “Really?”, she said. She had no idea how radically different her undergraduate experience would have been at Williams. The homepage of the economics department is one cause of this problem.

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