On the Virtues of Not Being an Expert

“[H]e who makes the programme is the god.” –Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears

“Expert, text-pert, / . . . Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” –Lennon-McCartney, “I Am the Walrus”

In Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, he fictionalizes the building of Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine, including the dramatic moment when the machine produces it’s first calculations. The moment is a disappointment to the workers who had spent months meticulously hand-crafting the parts for the machine because they think it miscalculates 102 + 2, not realizing that Cruikshank (Babbage’s fictional namesake) had written a new law regarding the product of 102 and 2:

[A]s a result of a decision beyond your knowledge . . . [y]ou saw two plus 102 equals 171. In nature this is what we call a miracle and I, who predicted it, would be called a prophet.

Cruikshank, as engineer of the programme, possesses a god-like power: he can determine facts and rewrite Truth. He can subvert others’ knowledge and expectations.

In many ways, teachers share this god-like position. We are the writers of programmes, i.e., curriculum, courses, and lessons. We determine what needs to be known and how it is known. Our knowledge and expectations take precedence over the knowledge and expectations of our students. In our role as expert, we determine the Truth as our students come to know it.

The all-knowing, all-seeing power of a god is also a monstrous weakness, for it renders him incapable of seeing things from others’ points of view. He cannot empathize with mortals’ short-sightedness, their fear and confusion when confronted with the unfamiliar or the uncertain, their lack of knowledge about things the god finds wholly knowable and intimately familiar.

Similarly, teachers often forget what it is like to be a student–to be unfamiliar with and intimidated by a subject; methods for reading, writing, and thinking about that subject; or even by the expert teaching the subject. Maryellen Weimer articulates this insufficiency in her blog post “A Failure to Communicate”:

Faculty, intimately familiar with the content, see how all the details fit, relate and become the big beautiful picture they know, study and love. What some have lost is the ability to see how the picture looks to others who are looking at it for the first time. How could those perfectly obvious concepts be missed?

Far too often, especially in the humanities, when we position ourselves as experts, we do so in terms of our ability to critically analyze a text–whether it be a piece of literature, an historical event, a sociological phenomenon, an archeological artifact, or a film/painting/photograph/musical composition. We attempt to guide our students towards an understanding and analysis as profound and articulate as our own, ignoring, dismissing, or, at best, humoring their initial, inexpert responses to the text. We push them to look beyond the obvious and the aesthetic, to recognize the symbolic, the implicit, the transcendent; in other words, we want them to value and recognize those aspects of the text that we and other experts think are the most important.

And in teaching students to read and interpret a text or understand a mathematical or scientific concept, we often use language that is as bewildering to them as the semantic bantering that takes place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the incomprehensible nonsense of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” In the latter, John Lennon ingeniously uses “linguistic chaos” to voice an ironic critique of the practice of textual analysis:

“Expert, textpert…” (the latter another probabl[e] portmanteau) deflects the attempts of folks (like me!) to explain what’s happening in the song. However, within the song’s context, these experts are more of those sneering, snide establishment folks, caught in the same trap as the desperate singer (“like pigs in a sty”) but unwilling to admit that there’s something real and fearsome to bewail. “…the joker laughs at you”, the lyrics tell us, but in “IATW” pronouns usually refer to us *all*, not just the second person singular.

In fact, legend has it that much of the song was guided by Lennon’s knowledge that a teacher at his former primary school was having his students analyze The Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon’s semantic hacking is both a commentary on the pedantic nature of school(ing) and an attempt to resist such pedantry. It’s his (unsuccessful) attempt to have his music accepted and enjoyed at face value, in much the same way that our students wish to accept our course content.

But such ideas rarely guide teachers as we create our courses. We are much more concerned with establishing ourselves as the text-perts. Being anything less is an uncomfortable and discomfiting proposition; it hints at lack of control. But what is the worst that can happen if we enter the classroom as something less than omniscient?

This is a question that currently preoccupies me as I plan a course on graphic novels, something that I have never taught before nor am I an expert in. In fact, I am currently very much in the role of student of the graphic novel. I only just “discovered” them about a year ago, and, while I was immediately and inexorably enthralled with the genre, I quickly discovered that my training and expertise in reading traditional texts had not provided me with the skills needed to fully understand and appreciate graphic novels. And so I have embarked upon a self-education in graphic novels, first by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and now by reading every graphic novel and comic that I can afford to get my hands on. Initially, I had planned to incorporate a third phase in which I read as many scholarly articles, books, and blog posts on the genre as I could before the class starts next summer. But I have begun to reconsider this part of my education. I hesitate to read the numerous scholarly sources that I have discovered because I wonder just how much they may cloud my initial unadulterated awe at the understated aesthetic power of Alison Bechdal’s Fun Home or the pristinely bittersweet humor of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I could very well become an expert, at least from my students’ perspective, on the graphic novel and teach the course as such, exerting, in the process, control, power, and influence. Or I could enter the classroom at the same novice-level position as my students, affording me a better ability to read the course’s texts through their eyes and to learn to interpret and analyze those texts alongside them, not with the language of the academy, but with honest unsophistication.

There’s equal power in not knowing and discovering for the very first time as there is in knowing from a distance. It’s this distance that I think needs to be re-evaluated. In graduate school, my professors had an easy answer to the anxieties that plague novice teachers: just stay one step ahead of your students and you’ll be okay (read: in control). But what if we were right in step with our students? Or even one step behind? Many educators have advocated for the students to become the teachers (although I suspect that some do so with the expectation that, ultimately, they’ll still have their finger on the automaton’s trigger). But far fewer are advocating for teachers to become the students. In traditional schooling, the teacher stays behind the curtain–remotely extolling facts as gifts and manipulating Truth. It’s the students’ role to discover the right path and overcome the obstacles along the way. But as our role as experts comes under pressure from the Internet and canned digital content and massive open online courses, there is a need to re-discover what it is that makes a classroom so special. It’s not the wizard behind the curtain. It’s the collective journey towards knowledge, the obstacles that problematize our progress, and the discoveries about Truth, as humans have defined it, made along the way.

It’s time we dispensed with the curtain and admitted that we’re really just students, too.

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6 thoughts on “On the Virtues of Not Being an Expert”

  1. As I read through this, I was thinking, “Teachers are learners too.” And then there it was in the final sentence.

    Yes, we may have more experience and expertise, but when we use them as weapons or wizardry, we undermine our primary purpose: helping students learn. They learn much more from our modeling than from our posturing or jabbering.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. John Lennon would be amused and pleased, I’m sure.

    1. Thanks for your feedback and thoughts. Unfortunately, I think that schools of education are continuing to teach the “teacher as expert” paradigm in terms of a power structure that encourages wizardry and weapons. Until we get to the root of practice, it will only continue.

  2. I really enjoyed encountering this article. Just today my teacher/partner and I were observing a classroom in which the teacher was the obvious expert — student response was predictably bored and disengaged. We’ve got to remember what it’s like to discover for oneself, or we’ll never engender that kind of discovery in our lessons. My solution is to get into classes on topics I’ve never been involved with before: remain a student to keep my student mindframe fresh and relateable.

    Wrote a bit on that here: The Importance of Being Amateur – http://bit.ly/SYT-Amateur

  3. I really enjoyed this post, as I’ve been thinking about the teacher-as-student approach myself lately. If you’ll pardon a moment of self-promotion, I wrote about this in “Disrupting Me” http://pithandpoetry.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/disrupting-me/ (which you kindly helped promote). I see that Cameron has pondered this too, and I look forward to reading “The Importance of Being Amateur.” As Gary observes, we should be modeling the practices and attitudes that we want our students to adopt. Fortunately, I’m hearing increased agreement on my campus with abandoning the “sage on the stage” method for the “guide on the side” approach. Let’s go a step further and be our students’ co-learners.

    1. Melissa, I meant to mention your post in mine (not sure why I didn’t), so I’m glad you shared the link here. I think that the more dialogue we have about our own experiences as co-learners, the more open other teachers will be about giving it a try.

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