Book Review: Teaching What You Don't Know

Many Carpentries instructors may find themselves in the position of teaching material they do not know all that well

A review of Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston

With such an intriguing premise and promise, how could I fail to pause over Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know? I have found myself in this situation several times in the past, either through hubris or bureaucracy, and the hopeful existence of a manual to smooth my way was too much to pass up. Huston presents a practical survey of the reality of teaching a subject in which one is not an expert, as well as a number of strategies for mitigating classroom disarray and providing a solid learning experience for students.

Much of the beginning of the book is an apologia for the affront the premise surely makes: after all, as professors and postdocs and lecturers, members and administrators of the academy, certainly we would not expect a non-expert to teach an expert subject? Of course, the reality is that the show must go on, and if there is no one else it must inevitably fall to you, Dear Reader, to teach the topic at hand. All in all, this section is a bit longer than it probably needs to be for the book’s target audience, but perhaps serves as justificatory prose for committee meetings on teaching assignments. (Administrators are also addressed again at the end of the text.)

The psychology of instructors who thrive or at least survive teaching subjects they are not expert in is discussed as well. Comfort level wasn’t determined by discipline, gender, or amount of prior teaching experience. Comfort level was impacted by how directly instructors faced and dealt with imposter syndrome and how much the instructor himself or herself placed a premium on total content mastery (that is, they model instruction as dispensation of knowledge).

Many of Huston’s recommendations will come as no surprise to Carpentries instructors—for instance, the exhortation to incorporate active learning, which both stimulates student learning and offloads classroom thinking to prep time rather than during lecture. Practical tips abound; examples include:

  • Create a positive learning environment, which stems from many factors other than expertise, many environmental.
  • Proceed inductively, from concrete examples to theory, rather than deductively. In particular, invite students to participate in the process of generating examples and scenarios.
  • Gauge student expectations and manage them by being transparent about your own familiarity and competence. Don’t present yourself as more capable in the domain than you are, and conversely don’t undermine your rôle as instructor through self-deprecation.
  • Manage imposter syndrome by facing it directly. Instructors who most enjoyed teaching outside of their expertise were those who “truly enjoyed being content novices” (p. 39) and had developed philosophies of teaching that didn’t require expertise for success.
  • Focus on aspects of the material that you find interesting (and also those that engage your students).
  • Handle questions you don’t know the answer to. (Her answer is on pages 121–128.)
  • Don’t overprepare, and don’t focus too much on enumerated lists and outlines. These are both crutches. So what do you do if you have too much time on your hands? Have an emergency (undated) activity ready to go.
  • Use activities which involve discussion, peer review, and other student initiatives.
  • Solicit feedback, early and often. ‘Nuff said.

The text addresses the general academic audience, rather than the scientific background that the Carpentries’ membership historically drew from. It is difficult to see how to adapt many of the techniques to teaching mathematics, say, or computer science. Nevertheless, Huston develops versatile and creative methods to ferret out student understanding and student participation, including in many ways that will be appropriate to technical workshops and classes. And in any case, who is to say that many of us may not end up teaching civics or history courses down the line?

In closing, to whom shall I recommend this book? In the first place to Carpentries trainers, who are charged with preparing new instructors. In the second to instructors who feel called upon to teach aspects of workshops they are not completely comfortable with: the MATLAB user summoned to teach NumPy, for instance. Those who feel imposter syndrome will benefit greatly from reading the central chapters of this book. The text will see much more use from me in coming years.

As someone who has taught several times material that I have not been expert in, I appreciated Huston’s candor and enthusiasm. Accept what is: “I’m an expert at some of these things but certainly not at all of them.” And for many subjects, who could be?


Neal Davis, Teaching Assistant Professor, University of Illinois Department of Computer Science.

The purchase of this book for review was generously sponsored by the Carpentries in support of improving instructor training.