Chapter 2: Why It's Better Than It Seems

Why It’s Scary

“It’s hard to be shown up by a nineteen year old.”

In Teaching What You Don’t Know, Terese Huston interviews 28 faculty and administrators about their experiences teaching outside their expertise. There are clear reasons on why you would not want to do this. Generally, the author found that teaching what you don’t know can be very stressful. An instructor doesn’t want to be outsmarted by students or asked questions she or he can answer. Also, when teaching outside of your expertise, you typically spend more time preparing for the courses.

Why Teach Outside Your Expertise

Considering the downsides – lack of sleep, extra preparation, anxiousness, etc., – why would you do this to yourself? Why would you teach what you do not know? Huston found that there are a number of reasons why her interview cohort found it beneficial to teach outside of their expertise:

  1. An opportunity to learn something new and most academics love to explore and learn something new. A corollary benefit of this is that teaching is a real solid way to focus the mind to be able to learn something.
  2. An opportunity to connect with faculty outside of your department. If you are teaching subject where someone else on campus in another department has content expertise, asking for that person’s help with the class is a great way to make new acquaintances.
  3. Broadens your CV and you become more attractive to potential employers because you become more versatile.
  4. Can lead you to developing a new area of research.

The authors typifies the interviewees into three categories with respect to teaching as content novices: ones who are comfortable with it, ones who are ok but not thrilled, and those who just don’t like it.

She then uses the level of comfort to get to the heart of the chapter. She found that the subjects comfort level was tied to the subject’s view of the role of the teacher. The instructors who felt that the role of the teacher is to lecture about content were more often unhappy about teaching outside their level of expertise. Those more comfy were less likely to hold that the teacher role was about transferring content. They were more likely to think that a teacher is more about creating the conditions for learning than a Pez dispenser of content. What’s interesting is that teachers who focus less on delivering content and more on providing a better learning environment are actually responding to the ways that students successfully learn. Students learn better when an instructor brings out the student’s existing understanding of a subject, challenges what is incorrect, and then builds on the correct pre-existing knowledge with new knowledge. This reflects that “no one is a blank slate”. All learners come to the classroom with existing precepts and ideas about the topic. Our job is to keep the correct ideas, challenge the incorrect ones and add to the framework. Additionally, it has been found that student’s learn most when instructors engage them on a few topics in-depth and provide them with examples as reinforcing touchstones, rather than overloading them with materials. Less is more in this case.

But what does this mean for the content novice teacher? The good news is that the findings that a positive learning environment is more important that delivering content plays to the strengths of a content novice instructor. Being closer to the learner, the content novice teacher will have a better sense of the right amount of content and assignments. They also tend to provide better and more concrete instructions than content expert instructors. This is simply because they are closer to students in being new to the content. They see the pitfalls and are realistic about issues of overload than an expert often is.