While I won’t be a real professor for some time yet, I have been a teacher many times in my life.
When I was in my undergrad, I worked as a swim instructor/lifeguard. My father was a lifeguard. My grandfather (though not his father) was a lifeguard. It just seemed like the thing to do. Despite this, and the fact that I am a strong swimmer, before getting my WSI (Water Safety Instructor certification) I had never been a technically proficient swimmer. I wasn’t ever on a swim team, I only took the most basic of swimming classes as a kid, most of my swimming experience came from growing up in a lakeside community and spending summers paddling around the rafts there. For a long time, I felt some innate guilt about this. Who was I to charge for swimming lessons when I clearly wasn’t any kind of expert?
Then I got to doing it for a while. I taught mommy and me classes, I taught kids, I taught adults who had never learned before. I wasn’t coaching Olympic athletes, I was teaching people to float. And to teach people to float, you don’t need to be an expert; you just need to be proficient and have an interest in seeing people get better. If you’re a great teacher, you’ll have an interest in getting better yourself.
When I was getting my Master’s, I worked as a ballroom dance instructor. Despite many
years of on-again/off-again dance training of different varieties and an innate ability to move gracefully, I wasn’t a technically proficient dancer (at least when I started instructor training). Even after my time in ballroom boot camp, I certainly didn’t know everything there was to know about ballroom. But I knew more than any normal person has any right to know. And even as I was teaching, I was learning more and more. I got better.
One day, my co-instructor expressed the same guilt I had felt at the 92nd St. Y so many years ago: she wasn’t a true expert. She felt like a fraud telling people she was because she knew there were things she didn’t know yet.
I shared with her my philosophy: you don’t need to be an Olympic swimmer to teach people to float; just like you don’t need to be a champion ballroom dancer to teach people the basic steps.
On Wednesday, I gave a lecture to the class I am TAing this semester. The lecture was on Augusto Boal as a theatre-maker and, since I’m at Tufts, included a great deal of historical context. While I do know something about this subject (and, obviously, more than the average person on the street), I would not call myself an expert upon it. But I wasn’t teaching forward spot runs. I was teaching the box step.
So often we graduate students feel the pressure to know everything. We’re thrown into a world with a lot of intelligent people where asking clarifying questions can be viewed as a sign of weakness and a sign of weakness is an invitation for the wolves to attack your soft underbelly. It’s vital for us to remember that we came to graduate school to learn. More importantly, we came to graduate school to learn to think. More often than not, I know the answer to a question because I know where to find that answer rather than know the answer off the top of my head. Oh, sure, you need to know some things. I’m not advocating for the complete abandonment of knowledge as an institution. But I am saying that it may be time to lighten up on ourselves. We go through enough stress without holding ourselves to some unrealistic expectation that we are omniscient.
So, if ever you feel the pressure to know, just remember: being able to explain the three unities and Aristotle’s seven aspects of drama is more than most normal people will be capable of. Knowing who the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen is and why he is important is a unique skillset (being able to spell his name even more unique). Your undergrads will always come up with questions you can’t answer, but the important part is that you know where to look to find the answer.