How to Teach a Humanities Class Outside Your Area of Expertise

Adjust professors are always being asked to teach classes on subjects they're not experts in. If you're one of them, consider a peer-driven learning model that allows you to learn alongside your students.

As a professor, it's almost too easy to fall into the 3,000-year-old model of teacher/student relations. The instructor stands at the head of the class, educates with impunity, and professes his or her knowledge to a flock of lambs studiously soaking in the lesson. There's nothing inherently wrong with this model as long as all parties involved play their roles. But while every class is going to have a student who isn't involved, it's a whole other issue if the professor isn't all that qualified to lecture on the subject. Yet I can guarantee you nearly every college in America employs an adjunct professor teaching a class outside their area of expertise. Thousands of conversations like the following occur every semester:


Department Head: "So you're an expert in British Literature, eh?"

Adjunct: "It's what I do best, Sir."

Department Head: "Terrific to hear. You're teaching The Beat Generation this year. Study up."

While it's a good idea for the adjunct to at least rip through Howl a couple times in preparation, there's a better option than simply winging it in front of the classroom for a semester. Instead, set the class up as a peer-driven learning environment, a format championed by Inside Higher Ed's Lee E. Skallerup. With peer-driven learning, the professor allows the students to democratically choose which texts to study. The goal is to achieve the necessary student-learning outcomes while also emphasizing that learning isn't just about listening to instructs babble on. In fact, the peer-driven model helps students learn how to teach themselves, which is a hugely useful skill for the world beyond the classroom.

"There is this assumption that our students don’t have the capacity to choose for themselves, that somehow they’ll choose the path of least resistance, or choose the 'easiest' texts. This is where I step in; I craft the class in order to make sure that the students are not only equipped to make the choices, but I also challenge them to push themselves. I give them guidelines, instead of strict edicts. The majority of them rise to the challenge, and while the results can be imperfect, they provide an opportunity to keep learning."

And if the students choose a text you're not familiar with, Skallerup says that you ought to simply join right in on the learning. The peer-driven model emphasizes the professor's role as an educational guide rather than a knowledge source, which fits better with how learning happens in the real world. Take a look at Skallerup's blog post (linked below). It includes links to her syllabi and other writings on peer-driven learning.

Read more at Inside Higher Ed

Photo credit: Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock

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