Threshold Concept: Teaching What I Don’t Know

(This is the 5th post in a series of 5. To see the earlier posts, start with Part 1 where I explain what threshold concepts are, following Addler-Kassner and Wardle.)

Teach what you don’t already know.

The last threshold concept took me a bit by surprise. As a recovering know-it-all, I very much still like feeling like an expert in the room. Even given my second threshold concept (“Knowledge is always already in-becoming, not motionless, static, or objective”), I still planned to maintain my position as slightly elevated in the classroom. If only by virtue of being older, more experienced in academic discourse, and better read than my students, I hoped to hold a smidge of expertise.

Then I read Haake’s essay “Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know,” in which she describes organizing entire courses around a theme or body of knowledge in which you aren’t an expert. I gulped. I wanted to dismiss this idea because it felt scary. But then I reminded myself of my third threshold concept (“Teaching can be a spiritual practice”).

This fall, as part of my spiritual practice, I meditated on the seven traits of mindfulness: one of them is “beginner’s mind,” shoshin. Shoshin is a positive mindset to cultivate, through which one approaches each moment with an attitude of curiosity, open-mindness, non-judgement. In fact, psychologists who study the nature of expertise have found that self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition and limit the subject’s ability to see creative solutions and approaches.

As I sat with the idea of teaching what I don’t already know, I felt the nervousness start to morph into anticipation. There are so many things I want to know more about, that I want to talk about with well-read, thoughtful, inquisitive people. Could it be that the privilege of teaching E110 could actually offer the space for that? Could it actually be that, by abandoning my need to be an expert, I could encounter richer discussion, writing, and collaborative learning, right in my own classroom? It remains to be seen, as I walk through that doorway. But right now, I feel more hopeful than I have in a long time that I can bring my own full self, with my strengths and shortcomings, passions and obsessions, capabilities and stories, into the classroom, all while inviting my students to do the same.

Works Cited

Haake, Katherine. “Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know” from Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, Anna Leahy, ed. 2005. pp. 98-105.


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