Being an expert

I’m not sure I’d call myself an expert in anything.  I’ve switched jobs a lot.  Technology has changed a lot.  I am still learning things, and I still make mistakes.  But, I’ve been an educator now for over 20 years.  I pay attention to research, both general educational research, and research specific to my field.  So I know a thing or two.  Still, I’m uncomfortable putting myself out there and saying, this is what I think and I think this because I’ve got experience and knowledge.  In other words, you should listen to me.  It feels somehow aggressive, and what if I’m wrong.

But I’m starting to think that now is the time to be an expert. I have to be okay with being wrong, but in order to be wrong, I have to have an opinion.  My field is sort of notorious for promoting “the right way” to do something.  In Computer Science, everyone thinks they know just the right language to start with or just the right approach. Often they’re evidence for this is, “It’s what I use or how I was taught.”  Not good enough.  I’m perfectly okay with saying, I use Python because it’s what I know.  I wouldn’t use it if it weren’t a good language to teach CS in, but I’ve read the research that says it’s a good language to start with.

I’ve also read the research that says that abstraction is a difficult concept for most high school students, so teaching certain CS concepts that require abstraction is a challenge.  I tread carefully there.

Many HS CS teachers I run into know this as well.  They’re very thoughtful about their approaches to teaching, and they have the same challenge I do.  They’re trying to teach CS in an “appropriate” way, according to good educational research, but they’re also trying to attract students, especially women and minorities, to their classes.  So the classes have to be educationally sound *and* fun *and* sensitive to gender and racial issues.

Many college professors, sadly, are not so thoughtful.  They’re not required to take the educational courses that HS (and Middle and elementary) teachers do.  They don’t know constructivism or who John Dewey even is.  Some know Papert.  Most think educational research is not important.  And college professors, I’m sorry to say, are often also the ones most loudly touting language x or language y or book x (often theirs) or book y (a colleague’s).  They are experts in their field, though.  And they want us listen to them.

But this is field specific, and it’s not the only thing I’ve been thinking about when it comes to expertise.  It’s also a little about leadership.  Being an expert can sometimes mean being a leader, and that means doing something with your expertise.  And I think that’s what I find particularly challenging.  What do you do? Write a book? Maintain a blog? Start a nonprofit? Move up the ladder at your institution so you can have influence? It’s funny because I tend to be, as my college roommate used to say, “all hat and no cattle.” That is, a cowboy who wears a big hat, but has no actual cows.  All talk, no action.  That’s not entirely true, but it is a little bit.  And I think it’s fear that holds me back.  My fear is typical impostor syndrome stuff, fear that I’m wrong, fear of conflict, etc.  And worry.  When I was writing my dissertation, everything else fell by the wayside except the essentials.  And what went first, mostly, was my family, because they’re awesome and supportive and I sort of took it for granted. The outcome of that was not good, for me or my family.  And I worry about doing that again.  If I took on a book project or started something big, even taking on something else at work, I’d have to put them on the back burner again.  And I think I can’t do that.

It’s not like there’s any particular opportunity I’m faced with, but I see a lot of little ones.  I see people not stepping up to do things, and so I do.  Because I care.  And I feel like I have something to contribute.  I understand better now what those contributions are, but I also understand better where I have to draw the line.  I think I’m doing pretty well.  I’m grateful for summer when the schedule allows me some flexibility: longer amounts of time for contributing and longer amounts of time with family.  Such a great benefit!


6 Replies to “Being an expert”

  1. As someone who suffered mightily on the receiving end of constructivism, not knowing what it is isn’t the end of the world… and may actually be a good thing. There are plenty of excellent ways of teaching that don’t require knowing a thing about John Dewey or whatever the in-vogue educrat philosophy is (can it still be constructivism? That’s soooo last century). A lot of educational “research” is actually just unproven theoretical garbage, or “research” that makes causal claims about correlations without understanding things like selection bias, reverse causality etc. That’s why many professors are skeptical.

    Sorry to slam that part of your post– the other stuff is good and yes, imposter syndrome is bad. However, slamming college professors for not following a specific teaching philosophy… well, it’s not justified. Sure there are plenty of lousy college professors out there, but it’s not because they didn’t take ed theory courses. There are plenty of lousy ed theory professors out there too! And there are plenty of college professors who spend a lot of time thinking about teaching and plenty of K-12 teachers who don’t.

  2. Yes, some ed theory is bad, I agree. And I have run into my fair share of education researchers who are frankly, not that smart. My experience in higher ed, though, was that an awful lot of faculty didn’t give teaching (or more importantly, learning) any thought at all. And I’m currently embroiled in a heated debate with some professors who are just spouting off. Long story. And trust me, I’ve seen plenty of K-12 teachers who don’t think about it as well. I wonder if in both cases, if your job is to teach, shouldn’t you be fired for not thinking about it or caring about it? And I don’t care so much if they follow a particular philosophy. I just want people to have good reasons for the way they’re teaching. If they say, well, it seems to work because of x, I’m okay with that. One thing I find in my field is that faculty aren’t sensitive to the ways their assignments might turn off particular kinds of people: women and/or minorities. That’s something I think about quite a bit.

  3. Great post! Encouraging me to contribute in my organizations even in the face of competition/opposition. Thanks!

  4. I know a thing or two myself. The trouble is one of those two things I know is how to operate a slide rule. I am not quite sure what the second thing I know is but I will find it some day. But I have lots of experience and can base some very unscientific opinions on that experience. My experience with college CS professors is mixed. I have worked with some old school guys that could not teach a duck to float. I have met some new school guys that are real pissed at the old school guys and are trying to rewrite how CS is taught. “This is the way we did it when I was a student” is not a researched based methodology. That “Programming 101 – Essentials of Java” should not be a Rite of Passage or a “thin out the weak ones” type class. No wonder we cannot get anybody to teach high school programming. After the typical Programming 101 anyone mildly interested in teaching Programming/CS is looking for something a bit more entertaining.

    Why write a book? Just put good ideas on the internet through a blog and watch them spread on their own.

  5. Yeah, I sat through the rite of passage classes–in CS and in Biology. They don’t do that in History or English. 🙂 And as for spreading ideas, it’s why I keep putting stuff here when I can. I try. 🙂

  6. I wound up here, because I’m writing an op-ed piece with this working title: “the difference between being an expert, and just being an a**hole” I am working on this because when you’re pitching yourself to clients as an expert, how you position yourself is going to affect your relationship with that client from then on,
    I know when to yield, and when to become the wall…but what I’m having trouble explaining is how I know which to be, and when.
    On your topic: remember if you say nothing about your field, the foks who DON”T know, but who DO know how to keep talking until they get to be boss, will dictate what happens in your field next. Don’t let the dummies, drive all the trucks!

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