what we don't know

Teaching What You Don't Know by Therese Huston

Among the things I haven't had time to do lately, I haven't had time to go to the annual U of I Faculty Retreat, the big one that brings people across campus together.  But I have been paging through this book by one of the keynote speakers. Huston argues that there are real structural aspects of how teaching is organized that lead to people teaching subjects they "don't know."  But the bar for "know" is ridiculously high for most academics, which is again an artifact of the extreme narrowness of dissertations and Ph.D. specialization in general.  In fact, most people teach things they are qualified to teach about (specialists in genetics can and should teach, for instance, biology), and her examples make this clear though the language around them is sometimes more dire, most likely reflecting the anxieties of her interviewees.

And the world changes.  We can't graduate knowing it all.  When I took storytelling, in 1998, no one had ever heard of "digital storytelling."  Now the term is everywhere, though it's used in very different ways depending on the context.  But a meaning has coalesced around audio-and-image recording technologies like iMovie and their use to record (predominately) personal stories.  I could not have known this when I was in school, and yet what I "don't know" was worth both learning and teaching. 

Huston argues that, based on her interview studies, there are three groups of faculty when it comes to teaching the unfamiliar:  poised and confident, indifferent and undecided, and stressed and anxious.  She gives tips for being more like the poised and confident group, but unlike your average self-help overseller, she cautions that some of this is just personality.  The basics of who we are.  Expectations and assumptions we really can't control.  So I'd recommend this for folks who are struggling with teaching, in general, because most of the tips to be "poised and confident" are just good teaching tips anyhow.  I like the things she suggests about thinking through pros and cons of hiding your learning process as well as being transparent about it.  For my part, I think teaching should be a process of telescoping in to the fine details and also out to the biggest of big pictures.  I like the balancing act this requires, and I think there would be something missing from the world if academic specialists never taught courses that required them to interact with students who have a general interest in a broad topic.


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Upcoming this week: Dipesh's Gryphon lecture (check out his styling bow tie!), and catching up with colleagues who teach LEEP this weekend, including some of my fellow 1999-ish GSLIS master's grads. 

On a personal note:  If life were just academic, it would be easier to get reading done and organize files and papers, but it would not be nearly as delicious.  Over fifty people came to our house for the baby shower for my dear friend Danielle's baby boy, Ezra Shine.  It was amazing.  She's an important part of my chosen family.  I am in favor of women having a splendid array of reproductive choices, including this one.  She will truly be a mother by choice, and I can't wait to be part of his world.