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Teaching What You Don't Know

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The professor is supposed to know everything. So there is a larger cultural issue involved here about pride in what we know and our status as professors, and perhaps that's one reason this hasn't been talked about before. But senior faculty who've done this for years say this is nothing new; over the years, they've had to come up with survival strategies to cope with this expectation. 



The posting below looks at a subject we professors are reluctant to discuss, teaching outside our are of expertise.  It is by James Rhem, Executive Editor of the National Teaching and Learning Forum, and is #51 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 19, Number 3, March, 2010.© Copyright 1996-2010. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Engaging Departments in Assessing Student Learning: Overcoming Common Obstacles



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Teaching What You Don't Know


Among the many things faculty don't talk about with their colleagues, how they feel about teaching outside their areas of expertise ranks fairly high. Perhaps that's why Therese Huston's nicely written book, Teaching What You Don't Know (Harvard, 2009), comes as a welcome surprise. After all, as most faculty know, it's not uncommon to be asked to teach a course you don't feel fully prepared to teach, especially if you rank low on the totem pole-a junior faculty member, for example, or perhaps an adjunct.

"It's a common issue," Huston said in a recent telephone conversation; "It's just little talked about. I've done it myself; a lot of people do it, and felt relieved to talk about it when I interviewed them for the book."

The idea for the book came out of Huston's work as director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Seattle University. "I do a lot of one-on-one consulting with  faculty, and this is a common issue. Of course, faculty don't say this is the issue, but it comes up in backwards ways." Indeed, when Huston began her work on the book, she found many well-known figures, among them Eric Mazur, Parker Palmer, Beverly Daniel Tatum, and John Bean, very willing to talk with her about the subject because they felt it important and too little discussed.

Not Gilligan's Island!

"We come from this culture where you put a professor on a desert island à la Gilligan, and the professor is supposed to be able to build a radio out of coconuts," laughs Huston. "The professor is supposed to know everything. So there is a larger cultural issue involved here about pride in what we know and our status as professors, and perhaps that's one reason this hasn't been talked about before. But senior faculty who've done this for years say this is nothing new; over the years, they've had to come up with survival strategies to cope with this expectation."

Indeed, "senior faculty were the most helpful," says Huston, "in that they had perspective. . . . Some were unhappy, but had strategies for doing it. But junior faculty in year one or two were really struggling. They need a life preserver. They can't figure out how to manage it. It was helpful to talk to senior people who both loved it and who hated it because it told me that years of doing it doesn't make it any easier, but it does give you survival strategies."

Reading Huston's book, one comes away with the feeling that the view of good teaching and the sound advice about it applies as well to any teaching as to teaching outside one's area of formal expertise. And, in the main, Huston agrees. "Most of the things that will help people teach well in this situation sit well with what the best of faculty development thinking already says: Be able to manage time, expectations, be clear with self, with students-all of those things true for faculty development in general."

Chair's Bad Advice

"But there were some specific things that popped out as surprising. One thing I heard from junior faculty teaching outside their expertise was that it was very frustrating for their department chair to say 'Just do whatever you want.' Chairs think they're being supportive, turning away from an autocratic management style, but instead the message devalues the course, disavows its importance."

Faculty, especially junior faculty, in this situation wanted guidance. "They wanted guidance and asked for it, but were told 'No, no. Do what you like' or perhaps 'Oh well, here's the standard textbook; it would probably be a good idea for you to use that.'"

Read Everything Now

Unfortunately, departmental leadership or lack thereof remains something faculty, especially junior faculty, have little control over. So what unique counsel did Huston's inquiry end up offering to faculty teaching 'what they don't know'? "Read everything before the course begins," says Huston. "My editor at Harvard said, 'Oh come on, everybody knows that.' But the truth is that when you are teaching outside your area, there's so much prep work to do: You start reading a book, something happens, you review the table of contents, you reassure yourself you'll read the rest of it later as you need to, and then a number of things can happen-one, you don't get a chance to read it because you get overwhelmed with e-mails from students or whatever, or two, you read it and you realize it's not relevant, or three, you don't understand it or it contradicts what you'd hoped to do. So 'read everything ahead of time' is a piece of advice you need to give faculty. I've done it myself [put off reading] and I've talked to a surprising number of faculty who also have done it and were overwhelmed and not able to do the reading later."

Not only does it take time to read material, it takes time to assimilate it, to sort out what's nice to know from what's essential in a new area. "That's a huge issue," says Huston, "knowing why something is important in an area outside your area."

To Tell or Not to Tell?

Underneath all of these aspects of teaching "what you don't know" lies perhaps the most difficult aspect for many. "Do you tell students or not? Do you let students know that this is learning experience for you as well? And people struggle with that," says Huston. "Some were working very hard to keep up the appearance that they knew more than they felt they really did."

Faculty, like all humans, have egos, and since facility in teaching still remains wedded to the presumption of expert content knowledge, it comes as no surprise faculty feel vulnerable when teaching in an area in which they don't feel credentialed. "I looked long and hard in the literature for an answer to this and found nothing," says Huston. "If faculty can find a way to tell students that 'We're all going to be learning something in this course' or that 'The life of a scholar is always to be learning, so we'll all be learning together in this course'-if the people I interviewed had been able to find some way to make it professionally appropriate to indicate that they were going to be learning too, it took a lot of pressure off of them, and they could enjoy the course much more."

White Men Only?

Every ray of light, however, finds an object and casts a shadow. Huston continues: "But it was often white men saying that. Female faculty, particularly in disciplines that are male-dominated, did not feel they could get up and say anything that their students would hear as 'I know less than my colleagues' because they knew their colleagues would never say that. And faculty of color, many of them, also struggled with that. They already felt they had their credibility and authority knocked down a few pegs compared with their white colleagues."

Don't Forget to Grin!

If simply having to bear it lies at the heart of being assigned to teach what you don't know perhaps the deepest key to success lies in finding a way to actually grin in the process. "I think probably appearing confident is the core issue," says Huston, "but that's also hard to find in the faculty development literature. People don't tend to coach on 'look your best.'" And of course the good reason for that lies in the fact that faculty don't want to traffic in superficialities, either intellectually or otherwise, but that's not what Huston is talking about. "The sources of confidence I'm talking about come from being continually open to the possibilities of learning. Projecting that to students."

Beginner's Mind

Faculty teaching "what they don't know" should also take heart in knowing that they may well be in a better position to teach well than experts in the area. Why? "Experts' edge in learning is much farther from the center of learning than where students are," says Huston. "Experts need to be brought back to what students must learn, not what they could learn. As a novice in this area yourself, you're not going to be as seduced by details as you might if you were expert in the area."

Islands of Confidence

At several points in her book, Huston invites readers to set up "islands of confidence" to which they may repair in these new voyages outside their home waters. Remembering days when teaching went well, for example, returning emotionally and mentally to that state of being. There are intellectual islands in unfamiliar territory as well, she says. "Another thing that's very reassuring is that chances are faculty usually know more than they think they do in these core topic areas outside their expertise. They probably have encountered these core concepts if they're part of their discipline at all. And so it's very reassuring to people to realize, 'Oh, I can work from this core concept, and that's going to be useful to students instead of working from esoteric concepts I may not grasp quite as firmly."

Common Mistakes

The common mistakes faculty make when teaching outside their area are:

o Over-preparing

o Lecturing too much

o Assigning too much

o Not allowing for student questions, and

o Thinking they need to be the expert to teach well.

The last two mistakes share a foundation in the vulnerability faculty feel in new territory. They don't want to appear vulnerable and so sometimes cut off student questions. "But you hurt your credibility by not taking students' questions," says Huston.

Take Your Medicine!

The penultimate chapter of Huston's book, "Getting Better," dives into this common sense of vulnerability with advice many don't want to hear. "Collect feedback early and often," says Huston. Indeed, in a sanguine foreshadowing of that chapter on a whole variety of novel and even enjoyable ways to collect meaningful feedback on one's teaching, earlier in the book Huston describes an "Emergency Assessment Kit" every teacher in a new situation should have on hand. "It's something to have on hand to use if you finish early," she says. "I like it because it causes me to think 'What would be a question that I could ask at any point in the semester that would be helpful to me?'" The assessment might be a "Clarity Grid" or "Survey Says" (both

described later in the book) but here again, Huston stresses the importance of being positive. Introduce the assessment saying something like "I was hoping we'd have time for this today, and it looks like we do," and not something like "Well, I guess we don't have anything else to do, and someone

told me I should try this."

In the end, it's all about the teaching after all, much more than expertise, and students will follow where confident, positive teachers can lead them.


Dr. Therese Huston

Director, Center for Excellence in

Teaching and Learning

Hunthausen 123

Seattle University

901 12th Ave.

Seattle, WA 98122

Telephone: (206) 296-2378