Chapter 1: Teaching What You Don't Know

Teaching What You Don't Know

Huston, Therese. (2009) Teaching what you don’t know /Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

In the first chapter, the author lays out some of the underpinnings for why teaching what you don’t know, though often not talked about, is prevalent in academia. She interviewed 28 faculty and administrators about teaching outside of their expertise and found that most teach what they don’t know, roughly, because of factors, such as where they teach, what they teach and the way higher education works.

Where they teach

Faculty and instructors that teach at smaller institutions are more likely to pick up course in topics they didn’t study in graduate school. The simple numbers dictate that you will have to cover more areas because of fewer instructors in smaller schools.

What they teach

Faculty that teach as part of a general education program or who are responsible for cross-disciplinary seminars are often teaching beyond their expertise. Additionally, many departments offer courses that are so broad that instructors can’t be experts in all of the represented topics. The author gave an example of a Law professor who teaches property law but noted that property law can cover material that is grounded in a thousand years of jurisprudence history. Subsequently, a professor who specializes in a sub-sub-sub part of that history will ultimately routinely be asked to teach outside of their area to contribute to the curricular offering of their school.

The way higher ed works

Unintended consequences of the way the university system works also play a part of the phenomena of teaching outside of one’s expertise. This is seen in a number of ways:

  1. There’s a big difference between the breath of what is often taught and the faculty’s own research. Their research is more often narrow and specialized requiring years of focus while courses are often more general and chasing more novel phenomena.
  2. Adjunct and new faculty are driven to teach outside of their fields because of diminishing job opportunities. The author cites that between 2003-2005, of the approximately 116,000 new positions created, only 16% were offered tenure-track positions. Fully eighty-four percent were hired as part-time or adjunct jobs (Huston, 2009, page 16).
  3. Graduate school experience also contributes to the fact that new faculty feel they are teaching beyond their expertise. After years of zooming in on a small sliver of research area, being asked to teach more general or different topics creates anxiety that is exaggerated by the expectations of an acute level of detail required to do current research.

Another emerging factor mentioned by the author is that university administrators are responding to trends in educational offerings elsewhere and putting pressure on departments to offer similar courses without regard to whether or not expertise is extant in the current faculty. This increasingly means that newer or adjuncts are being pressed into teaching what they don’t know more frequently and contributes to the overall phenomena.

As an academic librarian in a research library, teaching what you don’t know is increasingly more of a feature of the job than a bug. Librarians are often asked to provide research services (consulting and teaching) to an academic division or department without having a specialization in a that area. They will often visit classes to teach on library resources for the specific topics or will need to respond to requests from patrons for help with researching specialized subjects. I’m currently a data librarian at UCSD and since data needs cut across all disciplines, I get asked to teach, consult and help learners and researchers in departments as varied as medical informatics, oceanography, genomics, political science, and economics. Before coming to UCSD, if you told me that I’d be teaching R for Genomics with my social sciences academic background, I would have laughed. But that’s where the need was and with the help of colleagues who were closer to the domain, we pulled it off. Needless to say, Houston’s premise in Chapter 1 that teaching what you don’t know is an unspoken truth of academia both rang true and was a good news to hear.


Huston, Therese. (2009) Teaching what you don’t know /Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.