Teaching What You Don't Know

Brian Taylor

October 22, 2012

When I was a teenager, I wanted to become a professional golfer. I spent endless hours hitting balls on the range, putting on my basement carpet, and practicing my chipping at a field down the street from my house. I played on the golf team in high school, read magazines about the latest techniques and equipment, and studied the professionals in televised tournaments.

Twenty years after those aspirations (mercifully) died, I am now a tenured faculty member and administrator with a working spouse and five children. Although I still love to play golf, and sneak out whenever possible, it has been knocked down a substantial number of pegs on my priority list.

Two years ago, though, my wife decided that she would join a group of her friends who were taking up golf, and she got herself a set of lessons and some clubs. She quickly fell in love with the game. I was thrilled: What better than a happily married couple sharing a love of golf?

Her golf lessons had mostly involved learning how to swing, which meant she had not received much instruction in what golfers call "the short game": chipping shots onto the green and putting them into the hole. Don't worry about that, I assured her: The short game was always my specialty. I can teach you how to chip and putt in a snap.

So out on the course we went. I was confident that my many years as a student of the game, and my extensive knowledge of chipping and putting techniques, would enable me to help her develop those skills quickly. The first time I saw her chip, I began instructing her. "Keep your wrists stiff," I said. She hit a line drive over the green. "Not that stiff, obviously. Break them a little bit." She popped it up into the air about four inches. "Mostly stiff," I said, "but break them a little bit just over the ball." She glared at me and kicked the ball onto the green.

This went on for several holes, with her chips scattering everywhere—or going nowhere—and marital tension mounting. I grew increasingly frustrated, both with her and myself. Why wasn't she doing this right? And why couldn't I fix what she was doing wrong? Here was one of the few skills in the world in which I could claim some level of expertise. Over and over again, as I hit my own chips, I tried to analyze what I was doing and explain it to her, but nothing seemed to help her improve. Eventually I gave up.

"Playing golf is like dying," I pronounced philosophically, as we neared the end of that unhappy round. "There may be other people around, but ultimately you have to do it alone."

Somehow it always surprises me how little she appreciates my philosophical pronouncements.

This marital low point was the first real-world example that popped into my head while I was reading Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know (Harvard University Press), which analyzes the gap between teaching as an expert of the course content and teaching as a novice of it.

In the introduction to the book, which was just released in paperback, Huston points out that graduate students and new faculty members traditionally expect to be able to teach courses in their areas of expertise. That seems like a benign enough assumption. However, she writes, "college and university faculty members often find themselves having to teach what they don't know. They have to get up in front of their classes and explain something that they learned just last week, or two days ago, or, in the worst-case scenario, that same morning over a very hurried breakfast."

I can confirm that easily enough from my own dozen years of teaching at a liberal-arts college. Although my background is in 20th-century British literature, I regularly have to dip back into the 19th century for my survey course on British literature. With almost no formal training in rhetoric, I count "Argument and Persuasion" among my standard course offerings. Every member of my department could make similar claims.

That reality stems from the economics of higher education today, and seems unavoidable. Few institutions have the money it would take to hire experts in every field of specialization in a given department, and so most of us find ourselves stretching more or less in one direction or another in any given semester. I suspect all of us could testify to the way in which teaching outside our specialization can add to our work—and stress—loads.

Huston, the founding director of Seattle University's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and now a faculty-development consultant there, understands the drawbacks of teaching what you don't know. Her research for the book included interviews on that subject with 28 faculty members, from a range of disciplines and institutions.

But Huston's book offers a refreshing take: She also articulates a small number of benefits that a faculty member might gain from teaching as, in her words, a "content novice," and provides strategies for learning to do so more effectively.

The experience I had in attempting to teach my wife to chip a golf ball illustrates a fundamental problem we encounter when we are teaching in our more comfortable role as content experts: We take for granted fundamental knowledge or basic steps that the learner has not mastered. Someone who has recently mastered a skill or a body of knowledge, by contrast, remembers more clearly the challenges he faced, and is less likely to skip or skim over basic steps in the learning process.

Huston's book notes three interesting ways in which content novices have an advantage in helping their students learn:

  • Novices have a more realistic assessment of the time it will take a learner to complete a task. Experts often assign more work than the learner can complete in the time allotted. Huston cites one study that demonstrated that the estimations made by experts about the time a new learner needed to complete a task were not only much less reliable than the estimations of a novice—they were actually "worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all."
  • "People with little experience," Huston writes, "are also better than experts at predicting how many steps another person will need to complete a task on her first attempt. They can better envision the steps that a beginner will take, what kinds of mistakes she'll make, and which steps she might have to repeat."
  • Finally, she explains, "A content novice is also more likely than a content expert to relate difficult concepts to everyday, common knowledge—to something the student already knows—simply because the instructor doesn't have a vault of specialized knowledge on the topic from which to draw."

Both the first and second points help explain the difficulty I had in teaching my wife to chip. I could hardly have expected a single afternoon of my instruction to compete with the years I spent developing and practicing my chipping skills. But that didn’t occur to me until the end of our golf round, when I realized I had oversold the extent to which I could get her chipping and putting up to speed.

I also realized how difficult it was for me to step back and understand what I was doing when I chipped the ball. No matter how many times I slowed down my swing and tried to observe my own hand and arm motions, I found it hard to separate my swing into its component parts, or into chunks that I could communicate to her sequentially.

Huston's arguments about the advantages of teaching as a content novice ultimately reach to a more profound level, though. As she points out, "the underlying assumption for many of us is that good teaching involves finding an effective way to structure and communicate complex information." We see our jobs, in other words, as covering the material.

I see that time and again when I give talks on teaching and learning at other campuses, and try to present alternatives to that way of conceptualizing the work of teaching. I never fail to hear from faculty members who complain that, as much as they would like to experiment with their teaching, they just can’t do it because they have so much course material to cover. They can’t possibly envision “sacrificing” their in-class coverage of course content for strategies that allow students to engage more actively with the material and with each other.

When you teach as a content novice, you become much more aware of the limitations of thinking about teaching as "covering" content. You come to realize—as I always like to tell faculty members who feel like slaves to content coverage—that just because you are covering it doesn't mean they are learning it. Teaching as a content novice, you are more likely to set realistic expectations for learners, to notice when they are breaking down and experiencing problems, and to pause and make adjustments in response—instead of marching dutifully from one end of the syllabus to the other, covering everything on your ambitious agenda.

So as long as we continue to face the reality of teaching outside our specialties, we may be able to learn from the experience (and from Therese Huston) not only how to master this special teaching situation but how to think more clearly about what we are doing in all of our classrooms, and why we are doing it.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2008). He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at To read excerpts from an interview he conducted with Therese Huston, and to learn some concrete suggestions she offers for content experts who want to gain the benefits of teaching as a content novice, visit his Web site at