Brown: ‘Knowing and caring about my students helps me be a better teacher’

Economics professor to be honored with top teaching prize at annual awards ceremony

James Brown still remembers the moment that inspired his decision to become a teacher.

James Brown, professor of economics in Rice's School of Social Sciences.

James Brown, professor of economics in Rice’s School of Social Sciences.

The School of Social Sciences economics professor was in college at the time, at the University of Redlands. At the request of his professor, he offered a fellow student some help in understanding a concept in economic theory.

“Prior to that moment, I had no interest in teaching,” Brown said. “I was completely unprepared for the enormous satisfaction I felt when seeing the look on the student’s face after she thoroughly understood the concept. I knew at that moment that I would love teaching.”

Even now, 45 years later, Brown said the pursuit of such moments animates him each day. And in the pursuit of such moments, Brown has won ample admiration from Rice alumni, who this year voted for him to receive Rice’s highest teaching award, the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Brown will receive the award at the university’s annual teaching awards ceremony April 25. The ceremony is open to the campus community and will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. in McMurtry Auditorium; a reception will be held afterward.

Brown said that while the award “came as a very nice surprise,” he believes all Rice faculty try to teach classes in a way that will best help students in the long run, and all hope their courses will be of some lasting value to students.

“To the extent that this award reflects progress toward that goal on my part, I’m gratified, but I think the award mainly reflects the great students I’ve had over the years,” he said. “I’m just grateful to have had so many students who love learning.”

It’s not the first time Brown has been recognized for talented teaching. He won the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2013 and received the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2009. He was also honored with the Sarah A. Burnett Teaching Prize in the Social Sciences in 2010. Aside from his duties in the Department of Economics, Brown serves on the University Committee on Fellowships and Awards and is a faculty fellow in Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

Brown said that loving the subject he teaches and knowing and caring about his students as individuals helps him be a better teacher.

“For me, teaching any concept is largely about discovering for each student the explanation or sequence of questions that will generate an understanding so thorough it can never be lost,” he said. “This can sometimes occur in lectures, but I think it is best achieved in one-on-one and small-group settings. For me, effective teaching requires many hours spent with students outside of class. Fortunately, with Rice students that is always a nice thing!”

Brown said that while he had several great professors in graduate school whose work led him to love economics, his volunteer undergraduate teaching assistants most directly inspire his teaching.

“Being a part of their developing love of economics, seeing them discover their own love of teaching, and seeing or hearing from my current students about their generosity of spirit, love of economics and love of teaching, I’m inspired each semester to improve on the past,” he said.

Outside of academia, Brown most enjoys spending time with his family, along with watching old movies, which he said helps him maintain his stock of movie references “that none of (his) students recognize.” His children both graduated from Rice and were members of Jones College, where he is a faculty associate.

Brown encourages other teachers to “know (their) students as individuals.”

“The better you know each student, the better you will be at finding ways to help them, and the more you will want to find ways to help them.”

The Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching is awarded on the basis of surveys of Rice alumni who graduated two, three and five years ago.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.