Pathways to Expertise: Rhetoric and Civic Engagement

ScottLaunierFrom Scott Launier —

It was sometime before the 2013-14 academic year. I was asked if I wanted to train to teach “Rhetoric and Civic Engagement.” Always wanting to learn more, I was interested. But what would it mean 1) “to train,” and 2) aren’t some others already teaching this course? Question 2 had an easy answer: as one of the core courses for the minor and impending new major, we potentially won’t have enough instructors to teach all of the sections we’ll need to offer.

Question 1 had a more complex answer. Technically, I already possessed the qualifications to teach this course. But as is all too common in our profession, teachers with qualifications are called upon, sometimes at the very last minute, to teach a course for which they are not experts. The result can be a lot of fumbling and a course that is badly paced, lacking rigor or (even worse!) off topic, and a difficult experience for both students and the teacher. The training proposed to me hinged around theoretical ideas on how we develop expertise.

The training would last a full year, be time-intensive, and have several different modes of activity. It wouldn’t develop expertise, but it would mimic in a genuine way the activities engaged in by experts in the subject. Most of us in this department might recognize this as a form of discourse community enculturation.

This was not an attempt in any way to shortcut nor bypass the true amount of time and activity required to develop expertise. This was, however, an opportunity to spend time on the path of activity that develops expertise. And it sure as heck was a vastly different approach to teaching a new class than, “Here are the books, ask some people for copies of their syllabi. Good luck.”

We agreed to meet every 2-3 weeks through the year, and conceptualized that fall would gear toward reading, spring would incorporate more activity like interviewing instructors who have already taught the class, participate in class observations, and begin to develop a syllabus, and summer would culminate with a more complete syllabus and attendance at the Rhetoric Society of America national conference.

Through this training, did I become an expert for the course I am about to teach? Nowhere near. That wasn’t the intent, and we all understand that the time and study required to earn a PhD in developing an expertise cannot be short-cutted. But I did become much more equipped to teach the course, and this particular pathway to expertise continues beyond the one year of training. I know who and where to read. I know many of the current discussions and why they matter. I have even submitted for consideration my first paper to the 2016 Rhetoric Society of America conference in Atlanta. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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One thought on “Pathways to Expertise: Rhetoric and Civic Engagement

  1. I like the way that you characterize this training as “mimic[ing] in a genuine way the activities engaged in by experts in the subject.” In any new course I’ve taught, it seems like experience in the classroom and making field adjustments are key. But as important as those are, useful “training” and critical thinking about our pedagogy gives us a firm foundation to build upon. I know we have a lot of people (GTAs and others) teaching comp for the first time this semester, and reading your piece made me think about how thankful I am for the training I received before I taught the first time. I’ve gotten better since being in the classroom, but I would have been lost without the training the department offered me as a GTA. I’m teaching a new course myself this term, and, like you outline, it was a bit of a last minute opportunity. I’m very grateful for it and appreciate all the support I’ve gotten (thanks Elizabeth and Thomas!), but I hope I can avoid some of the pitfalls you discussed. —Jake Stewart

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