If you are like many faculty, you probably have stacks of books, journals, articles (whether print or virtual) accumulating on various surfaces in your work space and home. So the last thing you are looking for is something else to read. With that as a given, The Innovative Instructor still wants to recommend another book for you.
Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston (MSEL catalog, ISBNdb for online shopping price comparisons), is well worth perusing if you ever have to be teach a subject with which you are less than familiar. This situation is increasingly a common reality for faculty. Sometimes the gap between what you are asked to teach and your specialty interest is short — you’re a historian of British 20th century politics asked to teach a course on the political changes in Europe between the two world wars. Sometimes the gap is wider — Huston cites the example of a chemistry professor asked to teach a freshman year seminar called “The Common Intellectual Experience” where topics included the Declaration of Independence and slave narratives, two topics not generally covered in chemistry training (p. 11).
Huston discusses the advantages the experience can bring to an instructor who is a “content novice,” but more importantly, offers concrete steps that can be taken to teach a course outside of one’s disciplinary expertise. For example, she emphasizes the value of backward design.
Backward design involves 1) determining what you want students to be able to do as a result of taking the course, 2) deciding how you will assess their competency, and 3) based on 1) and 2) deciding what and how you will teach. (For more on backward design see: Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. “What is Backward Design?,” in Understanding by Design. 1st edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 7-19.) However, backward design is just one of a number of strategies Huston offers.
She examines common mistakes made (assigning too much work, underestimating preparation time) and outlines tactics for surviving in the classroom. She also covers active learning strategies and other activities to engage students. These can be especially useful when you are concerned about your level of expertise in the course subject matter.
Huston is reassuring with her statement, “It may not be the world’s most comfortable teaching, but students can learn as much, if not more, than they can in classes where you’re teaching form the core of your expertise.” (p. 8). After all, the chances are excellent that no matter what you are teaching, you will know more than your students.
In fact, Teaching What You Don’t Know is full of great advice for anyone teaching, whether or not familiarity with the subject matter is an issue. There is also a section with guidelines for administrators, such as department chairs, who may be in the position of making these teaching assignments. While not a primary source for instructional basics like how to build a syllabus or stimulate engaging class discussions, the curriculum design descriptions, teaching activities, and strategies for classroom management Huston offers make the book well worth a read.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
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