The Infallible Professor?
Be a Scholar, Not a Professor:
Advice to GTAs from an NAU Distinguished Teaching Fellow
Let me share with you a secret: all teachers (if they’re being honest) start out fearing they don’t know nearly enough. I’m strong in this area, but weak in this and this and this. Do I have these dates, that theory, this formula down correctly? What am I doing teaching course X instead of course Z? My students will ferret out the truth: I’m a sham.
Why share this secret? Misery loves company? Well, that cliché has been repeated and repeated for a reason—it’s the truth. But I’m not sharing this secret to gain sympathy or to let you know I feel your pain.
I’m sharing this secret because I want you to get over these feelings more quickly than I did. I’ve been out of graduate school a dozen years now, and it took a good decade of post-graduate teaching to shed these insecurities. These insecurities are not of my own making, nor are they insecurities of your own making. That said, we all participate in institutions that perpetuate ideologies about education that position educators as experts. While most of us work hard to find ways to de-center the classroom, make it more student-centered, we nonetheless hang onto the notion that the best teacher for each of the aforementioned tasks is the E-X-P-E-R-T. The academy has conditioned us to lay primary claim to one aspect of our work in higher education: to profess. The English meaning of the term “professor” originates from the verb “profess”: one who proclaims and tries to convert others. Particularly in the Western European tradition, the professor must appear infallible, convinced of his/her own knowledge and acumen.
My breakthrough in overcoming the need to be an expert came out of my continuing engagement in U.S. literature generally and American Indian literature more specifically. Let me explain. In the academy, the field of U.S. literary studies is about a century old. That’s a relatively young discipline compared to one of my sister fields; say, philosophy. Now, the field of American Indian literary studies is even younger—in practical terms, about 35 years old. In the space of each of those respective periods, the fields have undergone radical transformation. It is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. Canons—bodies of knowledge—have been created and contested and reformulated. Biases and limitations have been exposed. Submerged histories and voices have been uncovered. Controversies have emerged; theories have been introduced, applied, critiqued, revised, and thrown out.
An honest examination of my fields—and I would suggest most fields—reveals that no one can be the infallible professor. Without question, there are bodies of knowledge that we must acquire to be competent in our jobs teaching. But we must not lose sight of this fact: knowledge does not come into existence by itself. It is not sui generis. Rather, knowledge is created. Knowledge is a social production that one is engaged in. Imagine that: knowledge is a process. Processes are not fixed. They’re in motion.
The key asset of knowledge production is knowing precisely when a new strategy is needed, when new questions must be asked, when old ways must be overturned, when ignorance must be recognized. Or admitted.
I found it easier to dispense with my anxieties because I recognized that being the infallible, all-knowing professor was antithetical to true knowledge production in the field of American Indian and U.S. literary studies. I began to emphasize in my courses the social process of higher education generally and its history in my subject areas. I wanted my students to recognize that our way of studying particular subjects has come into being over time. By centering my analysis on academic decision-making, practices, and methods of inquiry and questioning, I expose my students to a whole schema of strategies that will make them better critical thinkers, more fully invested as participants, rather than passive witnesses, in the making of knowledge.
I encourage you to take a risk: let your students know that you’re not an expert—that you can’t be. That no one can be. Instead of working to be a professor, show your students what it means to be a teacher, a scholar, a doctor. The etymology of the English words “teacher” is instructive: to show, to point out. There’s no professing there. Be a doctor, a “learned person,” from docere in Latin. The original or archaic meaning of the English word “scholar” is even more instructive: student. Be a scholar. Show your students that you are still learning. Point out that as a student, you, too, encounter barriers and limits of your own, whether they’re related to lack of familiarity with different knowledge bases or limits of your academic training and unacknowledged paradigms.
A teacher-scholar shows the way beyond these limitations. Be a model to your students: show how you overcome such obstacles by revealing the path you take to acquiring more knowledge. This can take different forms. In some cases, it may mean taking a break from your schedule to provide supplementary material on a future class date—material that you’ve researched and investigated after questions were raised. In other cases it may mean doing research with your students. If your students are interested in a topic about which you know little, show them how you would begin your inquiry using the tools at your disposal as an academic. Being flexible and willing to show “behind-the-scenes” work is all about the process, isn’t it?
It also will mean that you will be more responsive to the individual needs of students because you can create the space for feedback and recursive reflection on the pathways of learning. You can bestow on your students a greater sense of responsibility and agency for their commentary, engagement, and obligations to furthering knowledge production. If a student makes a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment, I may choose to raise questions then and there about the social conditions that have evolved and continue to persist that authorize or endorse such perspectives. In some cases, after class, upon reflection, I may recognize that such comments deserve even greater attention in a later class. I’ll devise a way to incorporate such topics and make connections between the “personal” views and the social, institutional, and academic legacies of such thinking.
By modeling flexibility and connecting such strategies to evolving disciplines of knowledge, we can point the way to new horizons where we will discover yet another and another horizon to explore and where, quite likely, we’ll learn how much more we need to know.
Jeffrey Berglund, Associate Professor of English and