Higher Education

On Expertise in Higher Ed

I have been thinking a lot about expertise in higher education — especially as more institutions look to a growing number of “experts” to help solve their institutional challenges and issues. No thanks to Martin‘s book suggestion on expertise, my blog rant on this topic will be informed and directed as this text unpacks the challenges that knowledge and expertise holds. In thinking about expertise, Nicols (2017) shares how “…experience helps to separate the credentialed from the incompetent ” (p. 33) and it “distinguish[es] between people who have a passing acquaintance with a subject and people whose knowledge is definitive” (p. 39). This idea of expertise, of course, can be applied to a number of situations or issues in society — but for now, I will stick with the domain I work in, higher education (also, Chapter #3 of this book).

Nicols’ (2017) central premise asserts that our post-secondary institutions are failing to provide students basic knowledge and skills that form expertise, that is, “critical thinking: the ability to examine new information and completing ideas dispassionately, logically, and without emotional or personal preconceptions” (p. 72). He continues to also identify issues in Ameican higher education around the topic of expertise, including the abundance of students and faculty (and institutions), the manufacturing of Ph.D.’s that surpasses the academic job market demands, over-reliance and over credentialing of masters degrees, the influence of the ‘helicopter parent’ on education clientele, social media as a communication equalizer that removes respectful interactions, and over promising what a 4-year degree can offer for today’s employment market — just to name a few ‘highlights’ from the chapter.

I do agree with Nicols that our learners need to be more involved in the learning process. Our students need to be part of their education and doing more than just observing or absorbing information. Where is the debate? How are we engaging inquiry? When do we challenge our students to solve problems or apply learning beyond a course? I would much rather encourage a flock of critical thinkers rather than choosy consumers or relentless criticizers. I think enlightenment and growth should come from the learners, rather than being directed by the instructor. How are we encouraging this type of self-directed learning, higher ed?

That being said solid research on any given topic takes TIME and EFFORT. I agree with Nicols’ (2017) that “…the Internet is actually changing the way we read the way we reason, and even the way we think, and all for the worse” (p. 111). A simple Google Search on a topic is not as it seems, and the accuracy of information is rarely analyzed as we seek the quick response [More about this in @BreakDrink Episode No. 5 with Chris Gilliard]. Digital fluency and information literacy are skills we could ALL tool-up on (including myself) to improve upon our knowledge and move beyond the #FakeNews fallacies. If a research board calls on your expertise to “learn about the current higher ed trends” or a survey has a number of research limitations, then you might not want to put so much emphasis on a whitepaper report or generalizability of these findings [I have experienced both recently]. For those of us who seek to build on empirical work, how often do we cite or refer to a source without taking into consideration the sample size, context, or research methods? Why are we not applying more of these evidence-based methods into our practice? Are we suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect in higher ed, where ignorance is for dummies?

A recent Chronicle article identifies public intellectuals as “experts, often academics, who are well versed and well trained enough to comment on a wide range of issues [that is] professional secondhand dealers in ideas” (Drezner, 2017). Unlike these public intellectuals, we have also have thought leaders who “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize to anyone within earshot.” [This is perhaps why I cringe at being called a thought leader…]  One individual argues about everything that is right about their own idea (thought leaders) or wrong about others’ ideas (public intellectuals). It is easy to see why the thought leader has eclipsed the ideas owned by public intellectuals (Drezner, 2017) — as many of us do not want to hear criticism and would much rather learn about the optimism and great future that lies ahead. Right?

Sigh. It is the best and worst of times to have any expertise or knowledge in a given area. Based on Nichols’ (2017) view, the “public intellectual, that is, people who hold the middle ground” on issues to have their knowledge and ideas put forward. In practice, I think this might be true — take this recent conference session example: I was sharing some of the initial findings of what we are learning from the Networked Communities of Practice study and a couple of the attendees wanted specific answers and guidance on social and digital platforms for professional development for student affairs practitioners.  At the time, I could offer a few insights into uses of platforms and preliminary experiences; however, with this sort of research and SO MUCH DATA TO REVIEW — I could not tell them all they wanted to know.

Maybe this professional has only heard one (positive) perspective or has only heard similar ideas in a small echo chamber from the field on this topic. I was not surprised to learn practitioners and scholars are rarely found saying: “I don’t know” and “I want to know more before I give a definitive statement.”  No one wants to look incompetent or uninformed, right? Just maybe this assumption of expertise or authoritative knowledge, by title, role, or credential in higher ed, actually limits how much we ACTUALLY know and understand on any given topic. Perhaps it’s time for a few more of us from the knowledge working field to claim less expertise and continue to ask more questions. It might bring us somewhere interesting…

References:

Drezner, D. W. (2017, April 6). Triumph of the thought leader… and the eclipse of the public intellectual. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Triumph-of-the-Thought-Leader/239691

Nichols, T. (2017). The death of expertise: The campaign against established knowledge and why it matters. Oxford University Press.

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