The "I Wish" Song

Disney musicals follow a formula.  At some point, early in the story, the main characters must sing their "I wish" song.   Then they set out on some mission or journey.  I too have something of an "I wish" song,  one I sing every time I come across a good book on teaching and learning.  Right now I am most of the way through Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know and I find myself repeatedly singing "I wish I had known this before, I wish I had done that, I wish I had come up with the idea to write this book." 

I've spent the bulk of my career teaching outside my discipline.  My background is English literature, but I've taught journalism courses and countless interdisciplinary seminars containing no small amount of philosophy, religion, history, art history, psychology and social science (I once taught a course on sportswriting, for Pete's sake).  Even so, I still hesitate to advertise my lack of expertise on such subjects. So it's affirming to hear someone say at last that this kind of teaching can be effective, innovative and invigorating, even if it does come with its fair share of anxiety. To be sure, Huston respects and values expertise, but she also has the courage to write about one of the great unspoken truths in higher education: a lot of us--not just me--are teaching well outside of our areas of academic training.

Even within our disciplines we are often assigned to teach courses that contain some material we don't know as well as we might like.  There are actually some plusses to this.  Huston notes that teaching what you don't know affords you the chance to learn something new (which may creatively cross pollinate with what you do know).  To me, this is the main reason to do it.  You get to be a student again.

It can also connect you with colleagues outside your area and broaden your CV.  At my institution, too, teaching in interdisciplinary programs outside your area is viewed as a form of faculty service to the larger institution and it's valued by the Promotions and Tenure Committee.  This isn't always the case at larger universities where junior faculty may be knocked for straying from their disciplines.

In a very helpful chapter on Teaching and Surviving, Huston offers some sound, practical tips like find an entry point to the material that interests you, design from the end to the front of the course, work from the highly concrete to the abstract, and never fake it when you don't know.  Students will maintain their respect for professors who respond with "I'm not sure of the answer and I don't want to lead you astray."  They'll smell blood when a prof tries to bluff it.  Besides, it's just so liberating to say, "That's such a great question.  I wish I had a good answer.  Let's tackle it together." 

Teaching what you don't know isn't always wonderful.  There are any number of subjects I should never be let near.  That said, the experience is a reality for a lot of us, and it can be some of the best teaching we do.


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