Teaching What You (Mostly) Don’t Know

Several years ago, I participated in a book group sponsored by our university’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL). We read and discussed Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know (more recently I read her How Women Decide which I also recommend). We’ve all been in that boat, maybe the department is understaffed and needs help covering a course outside our expertise. Or a chair or dean “suggests” you widen your course portfolio. Or it’s a required course everyone in the department shares. We do what we can to make sure we are good department citizens and to ensure our students have strong learning experiences, even when we might be out of our depth.

Since I teach undergraduates exclusively, I’ve taught every core course and many of the electives in our Professional Writing and Rhetoric program (soon to be a major in Fall 2018!) as well as numerous sections of our first-year writing course and even two sections of literature (I was not very good, but one was vampire lit and one took place in Ireland so they were definitely interesting). I’m better at some and average in others, but I can still support my students in their learning journeys through my field.

But sometimes, maybe we offer a course on a subject we don’t know much about because it’s timely, meaningful, necessary, important. In the fall, I’ll be teaching a special topics course on feminism and rhetoric. There is a rich body of literature on women’s rhetorics and rhetorical silence, examples from classical times through to Emma Gonzalez today, and extensive theory. I used some social and political capital to swap it out with another elective that was already scheduled. I know this class will attract many students from diverse backgrounds, but I also know many , if not most, of the will know WAY more about feminism and women’s issues than I do.

I’ve been imagining the first day of the class since it went on the books. How do I say I’m trained in old dead white guys and don’t know much about non-old dead white guy rhetoric? How do I explain that gap in my education? Was it a conscious choice I made to avoid it, or were the classes not offered in grad school? Even if they weren’t offered, how had I just not noticed the absence?

Maybe I will just admit to those students in the fall that I (un)consciously avoided this subject because it makes me uncomfortable as a middle-class cis white woman and that I didn’t know to consider or talk about these issues without fear of possibly and quite unintentionally upsetting someone. And that I know now this makes me part of the problem.

So I’m offering this course. To fill that gap in my education; to learn from students far more knowledgeable and skilled in discussing issues of gender, race, and sexuality than I; to become better for it. Hopefully they will be OK about that, and we can learn together. I’ll do my best to pull the most appropriate theory, documents, histories, women in rhetorical theory, and they can help me with the feminism piece.

I have a lot of reading to do this summer. But part of being an Agile faculty member is being open to learning new things from those around you, trusting others’ experience and truth, being open to situations in which you might fall on your face, trusting that someone – even our students – will be there to pick you up and explain how not to fall next time. I’ve already got a stack of books on women’s rhetorics reading to be annotated. I’ll probably reread Huston’s Teaching What We Don’t Know for additional support. And whatever happens during the semester,I know students will learn and I’ll be a better person, teacher, and mentor at the end of it. So here we go.

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