By Stephanie Frank
When I got my first teaching assignment in 2009–“Human Being and Citizen” in the College Core at University of Chicago–my reaction was horror. Knowing that the curriculum began with the Iliad, I agonized, “But I don’t have ancient Greek!” Now, as the only full-time faculty member in religious studies at my institution, this reaction seems almost charmingly innocent to me. Over the last four years, I have developed a whole curriculum in religious studies that draws on languages I do not know, traditions I am not trained in, and themes I did not study in graduate school.
The psychological hurdle of teaching as a non-expert is not to be underestimated. But the fact of the matter is that—specialization being what it is—the vast majority of academics, no matter what their jobs, do most of their teaching in things they would not claim to be ‘experts’ about. And expertise is a not a bright-line matter. I would claim to be an ‘expert’ only on the intellectual history of the Durkheimian school. But ranging in concentric circles from that node of true expertise are other competencies: I know a lot about the history of the social sciences and about secularization theory; I know a fair amount about European intellectual history and the French revolution and critical theory. All of these are topics that I teach regularly to good effect, despite the fact that I have not written books on them. Remembering that expertise is a gradient helps instill the confidence to teach outside of one’s core competencies.
Still, some of us—particularly in smaller undergraduate-focused or service-oriented departments–do less teaching in circles close to our intellectual center than others. I am certainly one of these people. What I have found useful in designing courses (or sections of courses) that are far afield from my competencies:
- Perhaps most obviously, you can consult with others: people who are experts (or nearer to experts) than are you, or even others who are non-experts but who may have taught a similar class in the past. I have found my cohort from the University of Chicago to be an infinitely rich resource; I have also reached out to strangers on social media to ask for recommendations and cultivated relationships with them from that beginning.
- Design your syllabus to emphasize themes, questions, and skills rather than facts. This is of course the core of liberal-arts education, but it is both practical and comforting to underscore this (and announce as much to the students) when you feel out of your depth in a certain area.
- Explore non-traditional pairings juxtaposing less-comfortable material with more-comfortable material. I have taught the Vairochanabhisambodhi Tantra together with a short excerpt from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; I have also taught it with a few passages from Max Weber on asceticism. This sort of programming can be very exciting and rewarding for students who are just learning to think about affinities and contrasts between different traditions.
If you can clear the the confidence hurdle through some combination of clear-eyed reflection and prudent course design, I think teaching outside of your expertise often opens up a pedagogy with a different rhythm—it provides an unusual number of opportunities for learning alongside your students, which can be very exciting for everyone. What I have found useful in this sort of teaching:
- Be upfront with your students when the topic at hand is something you do not claim expertise in. Students often appreciate knowing that professors, too, have limitations. (This is often coded in terms of ‘relatability’ or ‘accessibility’ on student evaluations.)
- Resist allowing your anxiety about lack of expertise to push you into scripting your class sessions too thoroughly, and certainly resist the temptation to lapse into lecture. Areas in the curriculum where you have less expertise are great opportunities for in-class activities. (Asking colleagues for ideas regarding specific content can be very useful.)
- Try explicitly thematizing the fact that you are learning together: ask the students to bring to class a puzzlement regarding the material of the day. Have them list their puzzlements on the whiteboard, and include one of your own. See how many the students can solve adequately, working together, volunteer whatever answers you have, and then consult an expert on the rest.
- Get comfortable with the response, “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But I will find out and get back to you.” Then do that. Modelling independent learning is great for students. I keep a small notebook in my handbag where I jot such questions down; I begin each class session with a quick review of the last session, and circle back to answer any questions that I left hanging during that review, acknowledging the student who posed the question by name.
- At least once during the semester, invite a colleague who is an expert to attend class, whether in person or by Skype. Assign your guest’s work to the students and ask her to discuss it with them, or arrange for a more informal question-and-answer session (using class time to compile a list of worthwhile questions in advance).