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I’ve been teaching college students for more than 10 years now. When I first started teaching in the college classroom, my biggest fear was being asked a question that I didn’t have an immediate answer for. As a new instructor, I felt a bit like an impostor—that I didn’t have enough expertise to be teaching these students who sat in front of me. After all, at that time, I was still a graduate student myself.

Over the years, I built on my knowledge of the content I taught, and with that expertise came a sense of confidence. I felt far more prepared to address the questions students would fire at me, because I knew I had many of the answers already stored in my head. But while expertise increased my knowledge of content—seemingly making me better prepared to help students learn the material each semester—a recent experience led me to question if expertise can also come with a cost in the classroom.

When another instructor took leave midsemester this fall, I offered to step in and teach one of their courses. It was an upper-level course in a subdiscipline that was not my area of expertise and, I admit, an area that was far from one I felt comfortable teaching. Under ordinary conditions, I would have no reason to ever be teaching this course due to my lack of experience in that subject area. However, we needed someone, and I knew how to teach and knew many of the students.

On my first day meeting with the class, I was up-front with the students, confessing that my background was not up to par relative to the instructor who had just left. I informed them that I would be learning much of the content along with them, hoping to set their expectations at a reasonable level. Little did I realize that I’d also be learning quite a bit about how I teach along the way.

For starters, when students complained about the difficulty of the content in readings, I started to realize I had previously dismissed some of those complaints as a lack of motivation. In this new-to-me course, however, I found myself agreeing with their complaints. Despite my years of training on how to read empirical articles, I was trained in a specific field, not this new one. As I read the materials, more often than not, I could see where students were coming from: many readings were far from accessible to those who potentially had only taken a single introductory course in the field. No wonder they had learned to heavily rely on the professor to cover the content in class. That mind-set seemed to favor the “sage on the stage” approach, leading me to my next realization.

I often confronted questions from the students in this new class with the reaction “Let’s find out together,” turning our attention to the internet to start our search. I am sure some students found my lack of sage status frustrating, as I was deviating from the standard model they had probably grown accustomed to in the classroom. But my new approach had the potential to validate students’ perception that the material was not easy to learn overnight.

I was also modeling learning for them: despite the difficulty of the content to me, it was still learnable, countering the fixed mind-set mentality that prevents students from grappling with challenging content. Upon breaking from the sage on the stage tradition, I opened up opportunities for students to be the expert in a given moment, teaching all of us—me included—material that they were drawing from previous coursework and experiences to connect to our course content.

Finally, while I struggled to become knowledgeable enough from the assigned readings to discuss the content with students, I realized something else: typically, within my own area of study, my knowledge and passion for the field drove me to delve into the nuances of the topic that might not be essential to overall mastery of the course content. But within this new field of study that I now found myself teaching, I was neither prepared nor interested in grappling with those complexities. Instead, I aimed to provide the big picture to students; after all, I was in the mode of trying to understand the content at that broader level myself.

That shift made me appreciate that when professors dive into the minutiae of their field—particularly with students who are first learning the content—it may leave a lot of people behind, struggling to follow the connections the professor made. It made me appreciate that, in my own classes, I needed to step back and help students see the forest, not just the many specific trees—even if I was super excited about those trees.

In walking away from this novel teaching experience this past semester and reflecting on what I will do next in the classroom, I am reminding myself of the lessons I’ve learned and what other professors should keep in mind as they consider their pedagogical methods.

  • Trust that students are able to convey when the course materials are not meeting them where they are academically, and use that feedback to identify more appropriate, accessible course resources.
  • Prepare students to be ready to learn on their own. It’s not our job as professors to teach students what to think, but rather why and how to think for themselves. After all, our disciplines will always be changing, and the content and specific techniques we teach our students will change. They need to be ready to adapt to those changes without us.
  • No matter how tempting it is weave in and out of the complexities of our fields of study, students who have had less exposure to the field need to understand the big-picture issues. Those who are particularly interested will probably one day find themselves going down their own rabbit holes, but most will be best served by understanding big ideas, not minute details.

Certainly, expertise has its value and has largely been helpful in my teaching endeavors. I am in no way suggesting I or anyone else should be regularly teaching beyond their own field of study. But we can remind ourselves that our expertise shapes our view of the world, and thanks to that expertise, we do not see our disciplines the same way a novice does. We see interrelated webs of concepts where the novice sees massive numbers of disconnected dots. That latter view can be overwhelming, leading students to question whether they belong in our disciplines. In other words, when we fail to appreciate what that first glimpse of our field of study looked like, we miss the opportunity to invite students into it.

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