Do you need to be a specialist in the things that you teach?


This is something that’s been a question for me for a very long time and I’m still not sure that I know what the answer is.

On the one hand, you would reasonably expect those you teach to know what they’re teaching about; otherwise how could you feel confident that what they teach you is correct?

But on the other, given the wide range of transferable knowledge and skills that those who teach typically have, are we really saying that you need to have direct and intimate knowledge of an area before you can instruct?

This might feel like semantics about the gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘being a specialist’ but it’s a challenge that programme leaders and university departments regularly have to juggle.

In my case, I have taught a surprisingly wide range of course – from terrorism studies to research methods to theory of knowledge to German politics – about which I knew little more than the basics before I started. Conversely, I’ve never run a course on euroscepticism, on which I’ve written my PhD and published extensively, nor on Brexit, even though I’ve done a big pile of work helping non-student audiences to understand issues and dynamics.

There are good reasons for that: as part of what was a small department, we all needed to chip into covering particular subjects at particular points, because it was necessary for the overall needs of the programme. In the case of my research specialisations, there wasn’t enough student interest to justify running a course when other options were available.

Personally, I was quite happy not to send even more of my life talking about Brexit in recent years than I already was, but that might just be me.

But we come back to the dilemma: how much do you need to know to teach?

In the most extreme case I had, the terrorism course, I embraced my limitations by placing students in a very central role in the class. After a couple of weeks of introductory debates, they each picked topics of interest to them, I grouped them into cogent areas and then the rest of the semester was spent with student-led sessions, with all of us reflecting and developing our understanding as we went. I was very open about how much I knew, and flagged up useful readings as we went, allowing everyone to get meaningful feedback on their topic before using it to produce a final paper on that subject.

For the two years I ran that, it worked. The external examiner (who did know more about the subject) was very positive about both approach and content; the students gave positive formal and informal feedback; and I didn’t see any significant problems. But still the doubt about whether it was acceptable lingers: Certainly it wasn’t as rich an experience as could have been offered by someone with more of a background in the subject.

The tension here is between knowledge and teaching.

Yes, one needs to know your way around a subject, to understand the connections within it and beyond it. But you also need to be willing and able to share that with students.

I’m guessing we’ve all encountered the great name of a field in person, giving a plenary or out in the world, clearly highly knowledgeable but unable to communicate that in terms that are accessible. I still have vivid memories of a 2-hour (!) plenary speech by a highly eminent authority at a conference that told me (and probably any one else, to judge from the slumped forms around me) nothing of any use, even though it touched on several relevant areas.

This is not at all a call for enthusiasm/drive over ability – there’s more than enough bullshit out there as it is – but it is to ask for recognition that effective teaching cannot be reduced down to ‘just knowing stuff’: pedagogy matters, especially the willingness to understand learners’ needs.

That’s a big part of why I really like active learning in all its variety: rather than me talking about what interests me, I get to talk about what interests them, contextualising and developing it into a broader set of knowledge and skills that can be of use down the line.

But I’d like to read your views on this, because it still leaves a lot very open to discuss.

One Reply to “Do you need to be a specialist in the things that you teach?”

  1. Have you read Theresa Huston’s ‘Teaching What You Don’t Know’? It’s an excellent exploration of the topic.

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