Book of the week: Teaching What You Don't Know

Leslie Gofton on advice for neophytes in the lecture-theatre spotlight

September 10, 2009

I'm a great fan of the For Dummies series of books. Whenever my operating system goes down, or my microwave stops working, I reach for my For Dummies manual and it rarely lets me down.

It seems a shame that this book could not have gone out under the same rubric, for it sets out to do - for the unfortunates who find themselves forced to take on subject areas they never dreamt of when beavering away in postgraduate digs to produce cutting-edge material on the genetics of albino Neanderthals or transvestitism among the !Kung - what For Dummies or Haynes manuals would do, were they to enter the arena of learning how to teach what you don't know.

Therese Huston certainly has a keen eye for a market. As she demonstrates, teaching outside your area of competence is almost the norm in the US academy.

While this book is firmly rooted on the other side of the Atlantic, the experiences of those she surveyed for this work will certainly be familiar to colleagues in Britain. Indeed, the hints and tips provided here will be valuable perhaps everywhere that there is a higher education system.

Well-documented research findings reveal a shrinking provision of tenured lecturing positions, and a growing number of students and courses to be taught. One result is more and more pressure on individuals to teach a broader range of courses, so that virtually all of us, at some stage in our careers, end up facing a class to impart knowledge we did not have a very short time before, and often are quite uncertain that we have now, as we gaze nervously out into the lecture-theatre lights.

My own feeling in reading about that situation was, in the wise words of Sam Goldwyn, "deja vu all over again". I thought that I had invented the "impostor syndrome", which is the term Huston uses to describe the anxiety of neophyte lecturers facing classes who are only one chapter behind them as they plough through the contents of a new textbook to satisfy the teaching requirements of a department filled with research-active stars harvesting grants rather than teaching entry-level courses.

Even more interestingly, the author almost manages to persuade us that this is - wait for it - a good thing. As she argues, those who are content novices rather than content experts are more likely to appreciate the level most appropriate to other content novices (that is, the students just about to read the chapters that the neophyte has just finished), and produce treatments that communicate the concepts and details of those areas more clearly and effectively than content experts for whom these ideas have simply been absorbed into more abstract and complex understandings, and may therefore not seem in need of explication.

It can, Huston insists, be a wonderful opportunity to learn something new and interesting; to broaden your CV; or develop a new area of research. It is, she argues, an almost inevitable consequence of the increasing pressure - in Britain, as in the US - on individuals in tenured posts to publish and seek grants in their specialisms, resulting in the creation of a corps of adjunct staff to take on the work that those higher in the food chain do not wish to undertake.

Apparently, this is just as well. These experts are not often able to reach down to the level of the undergraduates as effectively as the educational locum brought in to cover this work.

Huston tells us that lecturing - "teaching as telling", the preferred mode of instruction among this elite group - is, in any case, no longer effective. Novices, who are willing to embrace new modes of teaching and accept a new pedagogical philosophy, are better able to motivate students because of more realistic expectations born of a lower level of engagement with the material; more willing to offer nitty-gritty concrete explanations and examples rather than abstract complexities; and able to foster "deep learning" rather than "surface learning".

Huston links these ideas to programmes of "how to do it" material and advice, aiming to foster among this corps of adjunct staff a revolutionary esprit to carry them through the trials of teaching stuff they don't know and didn't presumably intend to teach, to a triumphant conclusion. Hmm.

Much of this is deja vu all over again, of course, at least to anyone who has been around in education for more than a few years. Making material relevant, drawing on the students' own experiences and finding practical solutions to problems are all pretty familiar tactics to most of us who have taken even a passing interest in how to avoid classroom mutinies, and surely only the very new teacher will need telling that students can concentrate for only about 20 minutes, after which time they have to be offered a video or some kind of contact sport. The sound of snoring and/or iPods beeping around this time is familiar to the battle-hardened.

Teaching What You Don't Know will find a good audience as a rescue manual for the young, as it assuages the anxieties facing the postgraduate or the postdoctoral teacher. The book, which clearly draws on a wide range of teaching experience on the US scene, offers good advice and outlines some useful strategies.

Huston does, moreover, dig up issues that have become ever more pressing over the past few years. In many ways, its US perspective heightens the sense that there is an ever-growing problem here too, based on a fundamental dichotomy in the policies that have guided the development of our higher educational system for some years now. We are, perhaps, being given a glimpse of the road ahead for British higher education.

The predominant criteria for assessing the status and career prospects for individuals, departments and institutions are the acquisition of prestigious research funding and the publication of prestigious research papers. The platitudes (coupled with inaction) that are periodically offered about the importance of teaching, and indeed the low status accorded to textbooks as publications, stand as stark testimony to a system increasingly forced on the one hand to expand student numbers, while at the same time increasingly deterring staff from teaching those numbers, or even writing the books to be used by those recruited from the margins to do so.

All this is coupled with a cohort of students in which many are plunging themselves into crippling debt to pay for an education - or, as many see it, an educational qualification - that may be of uncertain quality and perhaps diminishing value in a world of accelerating cultural and economic change.

Applying patches and fixing bugs may be a useful thing if we are keeping an outdated computer working, but sooner or later, a new model with a different operating system has to be brought in, and the For Dummies handbook written. Huston might consider offering us a "how-to" manual to encourage teaching what you do know.


Therese Huston, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University, received her BA from Carleton College and her MSc and PhD from Carnegie Mellon University.

A specialist in psychology, Huston consults nationally and internationally on how to plan, launch and maintain successful teaching centres.

She has a passion for baking - backed by a library of more than 200 cookbooks. It is fortunate for her, then, that co-workers enjoy the fruits of her hobby. There have, however, been some unwanted side-effects: "One colleague said she gained four pounds the first year her office was near mine."

It was in 2004 that Huston joined Seattle University, a decision that she and her husband took in part to spend more time outdoors.

Perhaps unusually for a resident of the city, her favourite haunt is not to be found among the many coffee shops because Huston does not drink the beverage, instead preferring tea: "There is just so much good tea in the world to enjoy." So what does she like most about Seattle? "For me, sitting on a ferry on the way to an island, with the city's skyline fading in the distance, is a mini-vacation in itself."

Teaching What You Don't Know

By Therese Huston

Harvard University Press

320pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780674035805

Published 24 September 2009

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