What’s your metaphor?

Several years ago, when one of the universities I teach for asked me to design and serve as the subject matter expert (SME) for a research class in the professional writing master’s program, I immediately thought, “How can I possibly be an expert in all of the subjects that my students will need to research?” (By the way, I can’t be the only person in the curriculum design world who always pictures Captain Hook’s sidekick Smee when I see the acronym SME.) True, one could argue that I wasn’t being asked to prove my expertise in all the topics someone might research, but instead in the process of research itself. But even research itself can look vastly different depending on the researcher’s field and the genre, audience, and purpose of the writing. So it didn’t take me long to decide that I didn’t want to create “talking head” videos for the course, in which I would simply share from my own research experience–which, while it isn’t to be discounted, has mostly been in one small corner of a field that most of my students aren’t even going into. Instead, to give my students a broader picture of what “research” can mean in a variety of career fields, I decided to conduct a series of interviews in which I would talk to a nonprofit fundraiser, a biologist, an education professor, and a pastor about the research and writing they do in their work. So my students are seeing me in the videos, but mine is not the main voice they’re hearing. I’m the interviewer, whose role is to ask good questions to draw out other people’s expertise.

Ever since reading Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space, I’ve been thinking about how metaphors shape the way we do our work. Her book has a whole chapter about writerly metaphors–for example, you’re going to approach writing very differently if you think of it as a voyage of discovery as opposed to an uphill slog–but I’ve been thinking about metaphors in the realm of teaching. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the best metaphor for how I approach teaching, especially with my graduate students, is that of an interviewer. Because the focus of my course is a process–research–rather than a body of information, I allow my students to choose any topic for their major project, with very few limitations. Occasionally, students will choose a topic that I’d actually consider myself an expert or semi-expert in, like composition education or, that one wonderful time, Charles Dickens. But usually, they’re researching and writing about things I have no clue about, like family law or urban foraging. So I can’t pretend I know more about the topic than my student does. Instead, I find myself once again in the role of an interviewer, asking good questions to help the student access his or her own expertise. Most of the time, when I ask my grad students, “Would this be considered an authoritative source in your field?” or “Would your intended audience know the definition of this word?,” I’m not playing that old teacher trick of asking a question I already know the answer to (although I usually have a suspicion one way or the other–otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked). Instead, I’m gently pushing the students to access their own developing expertise.

I’m not downplaying my work here. Being able to ask the right questions is a genuine skill. But I’ve found that approaching my work as an interviewer, at least with these graduate students (a lot of this applies to my upper-level undergrad creative writing students too), keeps me from overstepping my boundaries and doing more harm than good–and losing the students’ trust–by trying to act like an expert in something I’m not. My job is not to look like the most knowledgeable person in the (online) room on every topic; it’s to help students access and build their own knowledge.

Now, as always, I turn the question over to you. Whether you’re a teacher or not, what metaphor(s) do you use to characterize the way you approach your work? If you’ve never thought about this before, think about it and let me know what you decide!

One thought on “What’s your metaphor?

  1. Todd Stockslager says:

    Smee! What about Smee!

    Interview subjects can tell feigned interest from true curiosity in the questions you would ask and it will be reflected in the effort and thought they put into answering them. My metaphor for writing or tackling any learning task is to find the patterns in the data–in other words, solve the puzzle.

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