Teaching What You Don’t Know

This spring I signed up for a CAT book group to discuss “Teaching What You Don’t Know” by Therese Huston. The basic premise of the book is that faculty often find themselves teaching a course outside their subject expertise. Maybe you are a new instructor.  Maybe the field is changing radically.  Maybe you are filling in for a colleague on sabbatical. Whatever the reason, you are outside your comfort zone,  feeling like an impostor, and dreading the penetrating student question that will expose your ignorance. The book provides strategies and insights along with the encouraging message that sometimes students learn best not from a god-like expert, but from an instructor who is struggling alongside them.

Read the book, I recommend it. As additional encouragement, let me share a my own story of winning the Provost’s Teaching Award for a class that initially terrified me.

First I should explain that I’ve always felt a bit of an impostor.  My PhD is in geophysics — a specialty firmly grounded in physics. Both my undergraduate and masters degrees are in physics. My training in geology was confined to a few remedial undergraduate classes I took as part of my PhD studies. Hired in the Temple Geology Department (since renamed Earth and Environmental Science) I felt comfortable teaching a graduate geophysics class, but undergraduate geology!?

My first semester’s teaching assignment including teaching the Core (GenEd’s predecessor) geology class “Catastrophic Geology,”  a large lecture class about earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts and other geologic calamities about which I had only a basic understanding. I read, and I read, and I read. Then I tried to look like I knew what I talking about as I lectured. I quickly learned to play to my strengths, working seismology (geophysics!) into my lectures on earthquakes, the fundamentals of kinetic energy (physics!) into my lectures on asteroid impacts, and a previous decade working as an environmental researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to contrast natural disasters with manmade.

The student reviews were generous. With repetition, I became more confident, and when the Core transitioned to GenEd the call went out to develop a new type of science class focused on the needs of non-majors.  I was ready. Standing on the shoulders of Dr. Kevin Furlong, a professor at Penn State, who pioneered using disaster movies to talk about geologic phenomena, I developed “Disasters: Geology vs. Hollywood,” a class that won me the first Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence in GenEd. Geollywood, as a I affectionately call it, remains hugely popular today. This spring there are nine sections offered with more 500 students enrolled.

Therese Huston is right. Teaching what you don’t know IS scary. But in my experience, it can also be immensely rewarding.

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