Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Anyone lived in a pretty how town (but never went to grad school)

Recently a colleague in a STEM field was describing the difficulty of finding qualified experts to teach a particular upper-level course, and it never occurred to me to ask, "Can't anyone in your department teach that?" I've been around academe long enough to know that every field has its areas of expertise and while most of us could, in a pinch, teach an intro-level course outside that area, those upper-level specialized courses require a level of expertise not possessed by everyone.

So it's always surprising to be reminded that others don't necessarily share that understanding. Years ago we had a provost who wanted us to search for someone who could teach anything, but good luck finding that universally qualified person. Maybe it's a mistake for graduate programs to insist on turning out scholars with expertise in specific areas, but on the other hand, how long would you have to stay in grad school to become an expert in everything?

And now that my own department is working on ways to staff certain courses in the coming years, I'm hearing that same annoying question that I've refused to ask others: "Can't anyone in your department teach that course?"

The problem is that anyone doesn't work here. Instead, we are an eclectic collection of someones who have worked long and hard to develop expertise in specific areas, and while we're all committed to lifelong learning and willing to stretch outside our comfort zones, it would be ridiculous to expect any of us to develop full-blown scholarly expertise in an entirely different area in our "free time."

Maybe somewhere there's an academic discipline in which anyone can teach everything, but until that condition becomes universal, we'll continue to rely upon that highly qualified someone to teach that special something so necessary to our students.      


Dana said...

Ha. We had a situation where administration was shocked that none of the current faculty could pick up organic chemistry in the middle of the semester. We are talking one lecture and three lab sections on top of our regular course load with no one who felt comfortable with organic. Sure, we CAN sort of do it if we have time - but to add a full teaching load onto what we are already doing in an unfamiliar subfield?!? And they were upset we couldn't just somehow make it happen. Arg.

Bev said...

Arg indeed! Sure, anyone can just study up on organic chemistry over the weekend and then teach a double load without short-changing students! Not.

penn said...

This happens in STEM in high school. Not sure about other fields -- maybe English teachers in high school can teach all English classes. But I teach biology. I could do chemistry in a pinch, if I have lots of time to plan. But physics? Oh, dear. I had one year teaching freshman-level intro physics. I spent a lot of time consulting with my physics-teacher husband.

Can I teach it? Sure. Can I teach it well? Um, I'll get back to you.