I admit, that’s a deliberately controversial title. The whole notion of ‘expert’ has become problematic lately, as more and more people catch on to the fact that pieces of paper and honorific statuettes and bumper stickers mean jack squat about your ability to communicate your esoteric knowledge to other people.
It so happens that last week’s bidness (yes, I actually do have some, hence my Johnny-Cash-inspired policy of inviting eminent guest bloggers to have their say) involved several chats about who should teach what.
The thing is, experts are often the worst teachers; they’ve been practicing whatever topic for way too long, and snug in their cocoon of pigeonholed expertise, they have lost touch with what it feels like to be the student who finds, say, Econ 101 as inaccessible as alien hieroglyphics.
Hence the conclusion that Dr. Gross, Dr. $hiraz and I had independently reached: you’re a better teacher if you were (and perhaps are) completely baffled by the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.
Case in point: I’m sure I wasn’t the world’s best Latin teacher. Latin always seemed like an eminently sensible language to me, and while I could sort of grasp the mindset of students who didn’t get it, my brain had been doing it for nigh on twenty years by the end. Throw in a little universal grammar (the byproduct of some Linguistics dabbling) and I often felt like I came off like some hippie praising the spirit in the sky: “This ablative is, like, on a whole different plain, man, because it was there in all the Indo-European languages.” I knew I wasn’t speaking the language of the students, but I had no idea how to get back to a point where I could.
Contrast that to Mythology, which is the bane of anyone studying ancient stuff. You’ve gotta understand, those ancient poets and historians quoted entire tragic cycles as glibly as today’s pundits would reference last night’s Glee episode. So, when you’re trying to understand the art and literature, there’s this whole subtext you’re not getting if you don’t know the mythology. And the mythology sucks: thousands of stories told by hundreds of authors, often in conflict with each other about the details, aren’t something you can just pick up.
Unless you suddenly have to teach Greek Mythology, which I did, for five years, because they asked me to. It wasn’t my area of expertise. I didn’t even particularly like it at first — the sadistic trivia-mongering of grad school takes away all the joy of ‘wow, isn’t this wacky?!’ But, by teaching it, I learned it. And I even learned to embrace its insanely conflicting array of crazy-ass stories. And I think I was probably better at teaching it because I started from the premise that it made no sense whatsoever.
Same goes for computer stuff. I have a hate-hate relationship with programming languages and the people who think they’re anything like real languages — but this means I’m willing to be one in the room who admits, ‘Hey, what gives, this makes no sense!’ If you can admit that about the topic at hand, but nonetheless appreciate the value of learning it, you’re off to a good start.
So, here’s my point: knowing something at the PhD level benefits very few of your fellow citizens. Oh, sure, a company may really need that applied calculation or fission diagram or whatever; but when it comes to teaching, you’re mostly supposed to model the basics, or better yet, a global kind of intelligence — the kind that does not pretend to know everything, but knows how to find solutions to the problems at hand, and maybe even gets over the crazy notion that ‘I don’t know’ is an obscenity coming from a teacher.
There’s also the fact that if you, like me or Dr. Gross, are stubborn and insist on learning something that’s hard for you, you can model that for the students. Or that if you, like Ann Daly, are intellectually curious (which teachers are supposed to be, right?), you can model the ability to find and research new areas of interest. None of which is encouraged by systems that test teachers and students alike on stupid, superficial points of knowledge.
So, when you’re putting together a class — whether it be on marketing, physics, or ancient poetry — there’s something to be said for letting amateurs do the teaching. Unlike PhDs (or CEOs or Supreme Thetan Guardians), supposed dilettantes often have their enthusiasm intact, and haven’t lost the ability to communicate with the outside world.
Oh, and they’re usually cheaper to hire.
UPDATE: Today I found an interesting article on Tracy McGrady, wondering whether being good at something, without having to try, can be an impediment….seems like this could a related issue?