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Teaching What You Don’t Know

Therese Huston's book helps faculty navigate new academic terrain

Written by Mike Thee
October 28, 2009

Imagine spending all or the better part of your professional life mastering a particular discipline only to find yourself needing to not only learn a new subject, but become proficient enough to teach it to a class of college students. This reality—which happens quite often actually—is taken up by Therese Huston in her recently published book, Teaching What You Don't Know (Harvard University Press). Huston, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, researched the topic and interviewed more than two dozen faculty at numerous institutions.

Huston says that many faculty eagerly seek out opportunities to expand their pedagogical repertoire. That’s true, she says of SU’s own John Bean (English) and Lydia McAllister (nursing), who were among the 28 faculty she interviewed for the book. For others, though, the experience can be understandably unsettling. One thing Huston found revealing in writing the book was the reaction by many of the professors she interviewed. “Normally, they don’t talk this way about their teaching,” says Huston. Many of the interviewees were genuinely relieved to share some anxieties they had previously kept to themselves. 

Yet Teaching What You Don’t Know offers more than solace to “content novices,” as Huston calls professors who venture outside their discipline. The book, Huston’s first, is a practical guide for professors who find themselves on new academic terrain.

One of the most striking things Huston found from her research is that faculty who teach outside their discipline can, with the right approach, more effectively reach students than some instructors who are subject matter experts. “If you are new to a topic,” she says, “you might actually be better able to motivate students, particularly those who are in the beginning stages of college.”

She adds that professors who have only recently tackled a new topic are better able to empathize with their students. This is important, she says, because “We know that high and reasonable expectations are key to student success.”