Expertise: You Have It

My MA program, like many humanities PhD programs, came with a teaching assistantship. I taught two sections of public speaking and, in return, the university waived my tuition and paid me a (very) small stipend.

I was nervous about my first teaching assignment for several reasons. Like many students entering a graduate program I had just moved across the country to a new place where I didn’t know anyone or anything. I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree and while it was in Communication I had never even taken a public speaking class.

How, I wondered, was I supposed to establish expertise in a class I had never taken in a classroom of students who were about my age? Would I even be a good teacher? What if my students didn’t learn anything? What if I was too easy or too harsh in grading?

There were a thousand overwhelming “what-ifs” that were compounded by not having a support network in the area.

What all of these what-ifs ultimately came down to was “how do I get students to believe I’m an expert in this subject when I don’t feel like an expert?”

Every single time I’ve taught a brand new class I’ve had an anxiety attack about how dare I think I’m enough of an expert to teach anyone anything outside of my very narrow little field.

I know I’m not alone in this. Most graduate students, and almost every woman graduate student, I’ve talked to has felt the same way when confronting a new class.

People have also developed some intriguing coping mechanisms.

One semester, when teaching in a new department, I was required to attend their TA orientation and a *very* successful professor said that the key to establishing your expertise in the classroom was to get there as early as possible so that the students were walking into your classroom rather than you walking into their classroom.

And . . . just . . . what the actual fuck?

Later, at a bar with senior graduate students in that department, I shared how outrageous this idea of authority was expecting them all to laugh along with me and say, “That’s just Dr. So-and so.”

But they did not.

Instead, I was met with a variety of blank stares until someone meekly said, “Well, yeah.”

Readers, this man had indoctrinated dozens of graduate students with the idea that your expertise is based on when you enter a room.

Now, certainly, there is a feeling of authority that comes with being prepared and that can involve getting to the classroom early so that you’re organized and ready to go when class starts.

Even if you get to class late, though, you are still the teacher.

If an eager student gets to your office hours before you do they are not suddenly the instructor.

Your credibility in the classroom is not based on your location or the time of your arrival.

Your credibility is located in the expertise you’ve gained.

If you’re anything like me this would be the time when your impostor syndrome starts yelling, “BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY EXPERTISE??? HOW COULD THEY PUT ME IN FRONT OF STUDENTS???”

You do, though.

Even if you aren’t a subject expert on every single subject your survey class touches, even if you’re teaching a class you never took, you still have valuable expertise to share with your students.

What you know, what your expertise is in, the only expertise you need to teach is how to learn.

You have more experience learning in a formal educational setting than anyone else in the room.

You aren’t there to be the first in the room or to know more about absolutely every subject.

You are there to show your students how to learn and by the very virtue of being in a graduate program you’ve proven that you have that expertise.

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