Expertise: Lore or Allure?

by: Cara Meixner

As faculty, each of us cultivates an area of expertise. Specialists in a field or fields of inquiry, we are paid, promoted, and (too often) critiqued for knowing a lot about a little. The very process of earning a PhD exacerbates this status, and it isn’t uncommon for the “freshly-minted” varietal to confess the sacrifices they have made in exchange for the doctorate. While I would likely do the same all over again, I cannot, for instance, reclaim years void of earnest, novice inquiry into world affairs, politics, pop culture, and – yes – the New York Times Bestseller list. The more expertise I grew in my discipline, the more ignorant I became of happenstances outside of the social sciences.

Members of the academic community cultivate the ever-elusive “expertise” through research, scholarly inquiry, teaching, advising, and more (dare I mention doctoral comps?). An other-proclaimed “expert” methodologist in qualitative and mixed methods inquiry, I find that very status subject to its own critique – and another blog post. We work tirelessly to till our expertise areas, predominately through our contributions to the intersected milieus of scholarship and research. Therein, we share a disciplinary culture within which norms, mores, rhetoric, and philosophies are bred and deconstructed.

Our expertise is also reflected in our teaching and in the means through which our students learn and grow in the coeducational context. I may possess expertise, but if I cannot bring the material to life and inspire the flourishing of nimble minds, am I really expert? Many would argue that experts are the best instructors. Not the case, notes author and psychologist Therese Huston (2009): “Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and educational psychology suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised” (p. 45).

As it stands, the more expert we become in our subject matter, the less efficacious we are at estimating time on task, predicting novice students’ performance, and motivating students to learn (Huston, 2009). Content experts often live in a world of advanced abstractions when many of our students, particularly those who are novice to the subject matter, require cognitive scaffolding – a structure that helps get them move from the concrete (e.g., foundational exploration) to the abstract (e.g., synthesis and application). Huston paraphrases two empirical findings in her text; one, students taught by content experts make more mistakes on problem sets than those taught by content novices (i.e., individuals who are also in the process of learning the material). Second, learners rank content novices above experts in the teaching of problem-solving skills.

Initially, I balked at the findings; that is, until I found that they are well supported by the literature. Still, I found myself pondering the enigma of “expertise” until one day, in the fifth week of a beginner’s yoga class, a probing thought entered my mind as I inhabited full novice status on that mat. The backstory is as such: this was my third “try” at yoga. Prior to the current foray, I had attempted yoga on several occasions. My first stab, no pun intended, ended in abject physical pain. The teacher, who had been leading classes for more than a decade and had written “the” book on some style of yoga I cannot pronounce, taught yoga in a “watch me-then follow- all while I talk to you in Sanskrit” manner. Her poses were elegant and swan-like; when I attempted mimicry, I fell on my side, landing hard on my hip. Merely watching her was enough learning; copying her was my own disgrace.

A few years later, I tried yoga again, this time with a friend. The instructor ran the studio like a boot camp. Breathe, breathe, breeeaaaathe, she chanted in raspy harmony. Within 10 minutes, I was breathing on the edge of hyperventilation and I couldn’t hold a pose. Blue in the face, I nearly passed out in downward-facing dog.

Not one to give up, I resolved to give yoga another “go” in 2011. This time, it was as if I’d entered another universe… a learning space completely unlike what I had experienced prior. Having recently completed a yoga certification, my instructor instructed us with an air of empathy and positive regard. Applying metaphor and a hands-on approach, she guided us on how breathe before introducing even the most basic poses. Attuned to each of her learners, she taught us yoga by engaging us in the very elements my past teachers had neglected – how and why we breathe in yoga, how and why we time our breaths with poses, and so much more. And having just learned “yoga teaching” she was profoundly aware of the gaps, bottlenecks, and tough spots that novice learners experience.

The parallel process of learning something from a novice instructor while teaching novice learners from my “expert” status has been transformative. Often, we become so expert at something – tying our shoes for instance – that it becomes almost instinctual. I take for granted, for instance, my ability to understand and differentiate methodological concepts like induction, deduction, and abduction. Droning on to my students about their relevance would induce 30+ “trout” looks – quite similar to the fish face I donned in that first yoga class. To teach these concepts well, I have to recall in my mind’s eye what happened when I was learning research design, no matter how easy or hard that process was for me. And if it was easy for me, I remind myself of yoga: some individuals have natural gifts while others, like me in the yoga studio, require a bit more help to get from step 1 to step 10.

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