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Teaching Outside of Your Expertise

Faculty members in every field—from English to education, from mathematics to medicine—are teaching things they just learned. What can we learn from people who do it well? And why isn’t anyone talking about it?

You might be thinking, well, it makes sense that new faculty, teachers fresh out of graduate school, might teach outside of their expertise—but not experienced faculty. Once you get past your first year of teaching, you get to teach what you know best, right?

Not quite. University instructors learn the material while they teach it at all stages of their careers.

Let’s take Derek Bruff, a senior lecturer of mathematics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, tennessee. Derek first started teaching nine years ago and he usually teaches calculus and statistics courses, the bread-and-butter of most math departments. Lots of equations and weekly problem sets. But this past year, he found himself teaching a course called “Cryptography: The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code-Breaking.” Exciting stuff, and it would be a dream course for anyone who loved The Da Vinci Code.

As you might expect, half of the course was firmly grounded in things Derek knew well, namely the math behind codes and encryption. But as the title of the course suggests, the other half was a dizzying tour of history—from Julius Caesar’s secret codes to the Allied code-breaking efforts in World War II to the advent of the modern computer. Most of it was new knowledge that Derek had to teach himself before he could teach his students. Few of us can glide effortlessly from world history to solving complex equations and back again.

Derek isn’t alone. I formally interviewed 28 faculty members from a broad range of academic disciplines and institutions for my book, Teaching What You Don’t Know, and I spoke informally with many more. Although some instructors have the luxury of teaching only what they know best, most faculty have taught outside of their expertise at least once, and for a surprising number, it’s their modus operandi. 

If this is so commonplace, why do I call this a secret? Most people in the ivory tower don’t talk about this basic fact of academic life. Not instructors, not department chairs, and certainly not deans or provosts. Up until now, it’s been a taboo subject.

It makes sense that it’s been kept hush-hush; for years now, it’s simply been too risky for anyone to admit it. Adjunct or contract instructors often want to be seen as versatile team-players with the hopes of being hired again the next year. Tenure-track faculty don’t want to say anything that might jeopardize what seems to be a voodoo tenure process. Mid-career and senior faculty, who have the most job security, still don’t want to lose the hard-earned respect of their colleagues (assuming they have it, and not everyone does). So even though it’s a common dilemma for faculty to teach beyond their training, most people think they are alone. Since no one says anything, it’s easy to assume you are the first person in your department to machete your way through an unfamiliar topic.

My hope is to jumpstart the discussion. Let’s find ways to help one another. If it’s so common to teach material while we’re still mastering it, people must have ideas on how to do it well.

Before we continue, let’s introduce two terms: content expert and content novice. We all know what a “content expert” is—someone who has extensive specialized knowledge about a topic. Derek Bruff, for example, is a content expert in statistics. A “content novice” is someone who has little or no specialized knowledge in a topic. It’s different from being a novice teacher; even a seasoned instructor could be a content novice in certain classes. When Derek teaches about the codes used in World War II, he is teaching as a content novice.

What can a content novice do to earn students’ respect and create a good learning experience while keeping the experience manageable? First, be sure to read all of assigned readings—ideally before the course begins. If you can’t read something before the term starts (maybe you’ve been assigned the course last minute), be sure to read it before you step into class. This might sound like a no-brainer, but when you’re teaching outside your expertise, you’re pressed for time and you’re trying to read things your students aren’t reading. (After all, you want to bring new ideas to class, right?) Well-intentioned instructors can invest hours and hours researching outside materials and then not finish reading the chapter or article they’ve assigned. It’s a dangerous strategy. One quick way to lose credibility with your students is to be unfamiliar with the readings. Outside research is good, but if you’re short on time, do the assigned readings first and trust your critical thinking skills and outside experiences to bring new ideas to the table.

Once the course begins, the best piece of advice for creating a good learning experience while maintaining your sanity is to avoid the temptation to lecture all of the time. Ironically, I heard this in many interviews. Faculty often feel drawn to lecture on topics they don’t know very well. One would think that the last thing an instructor would want to do is to lecture for 45 or 60 minutes on a topic she just learned, but faculty, especially newer faculty, gravitate to doing exactly that. There are many reasons that lecturing probably seems like the safe route—you can lecture directly from the notes you just took last week when you were learning the material, plus the students are less likely to raise troubling questions you can’t answer.

But the research shows that students don’t learn more when they passively listen to a lecture. For most things, students learn more when they actively work with the material to generate their own understanding, and this happens when they ask their questions, guess the correct answer, analyze examples, or critique a case study, to name just a few active approaches. (For more concrete approaches to active learning, see “Best Practices” below, or the books by Barkley et al., Bean, Bruff, or Huston).

For years, researchers have been talking about “active learning” and why it leads to longer retention and deeper comprehension than the traditional lecture. But, in this case, I’m also looking out for your sanity if you’re teaching as a content novice. As I listened to faculty tell their stories, it became clear that instructors who enjoyed teaching as content novices lectured less. They didn’t view “teaching as telling,” and they didn’t think that they needed to learn everything before they walked into the classroom.

Instead, they talked about how they were going to get students to think about the material. These instructors knew they were thinking hard about the material as they learned it, and they wanted their students to think just as hard as they were. Rather than taking 20 minutes to regurgitate how a research study was done, they asked students, “How did the researcher collect this data? What do you think the lab looked like? Why did they test 40 people and not 500 or 1,000?”

Teaching what you don’t know is difficult work for anyone. It truly is. But as college teachers who might be accustomed to our comfy thrones of expertise, we often make teaching a new topic harder on ourselves than it necessarily needs to be.

Published in:

Published In

October, 2009


Thriving in Academe

  • anc_dyn_linksTeaching By the Seat of Your Pants
  • anc_dyn_linksTales from Real Life: Feeling A Bit Inferior
  • anc_dyn_linksTeaching Outside of Your Expertise
  • anc_dyn_linksBest Practices: Active Learning for Non-Experts
  • anc_dyn_linksIssues to Consider: The Dreaded Mistake
  • anc_dyn_linksReferences and Resources

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