Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Can you develop expertise through experience?

Last week I chaired a search committee to fill a program chair position on campus. Our final candidate was a perfect match for the position--he had done the same sort of work on another campus, drafted the proposal to institute such a program on our campus, shepherded it through the approval process, and then served as the interim chair for a few months while we completed this search. So the committee's decision to recommend him to the Provost was an easy one.

But the thing that got me thinking was not his experience leading academic programs, but his academic expertise. Ours is a teaching faculty--many of us publish or present infrequently. But this faculty member has an active research agenda, one that has led to the publication of three books, dozens of articles, and scads of book reviews, conference presentations, and associated academic work. In short, he is an expert in his field, someone who knows the nooks and crannies of his subject (the intersections of transcendentalism and romanticism) and of the field that surrounds it.

His resume is not unlike those of many administrators, who have academic expertise in a particular field, and substantial experience in running portions of a college or university. (My own CV has a similar though less-focused look--an odd mixture of publications in history, civic engagement, and higher ed administration.)

I can't speak for others, but I feel a certain exasperation with this gap between expertise and experience, for three reasons:
1. I miss the days when I could justify spending a substantial amount of time doing research (learning) about something--that is, in developing expertise.

2. Experience-based learning in higher ed administration tends to a flattening out of knowledge. After a time (a decade of full-time administrative work, in my case) you develop a set of skills that make it possible for you to do your work well. But I am not certain that those skills translate into expertise, at least of the sort that you develop through focused research and publication.

3. The expertise/experience gap has political implications--many faculty I have known, at Westminster and elsewhere, feel that administrative work is a lower sort of work, and administrators are suspect, in part because their abilities are based in experience rather than expertise. That is, experience-based learning is suspect.

Does it matter that administrators learn through experience more than research? Does it matter that faculty learn more through research than experience? Is it possible to set up an administrative system that helps experience become expertise? We believe we can do this with students--coupling reflection with service-learning for example, or an internship with a research paper. Is it possible for faculty and administrators?

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Great questions.

My thought is that some sort of hybrid model of developing expertise is important for both administrators and faculty members. Aside from the fact that I think combining the two leads to better learning (there seems to be a connection to the "by study and also by faith" idea here), it also seems to help solve some of the political problems you mention. You mentioned in the post that faculty look down on administrative work because of the lack of "academic" work or learning. I've also seen non-faculty administrators describe faculty work as irrelevant and less than useful because it isn't based in "real-life" experience. So, engaging both groups in both types of work would seem to help there.

As far as a system that would allow administrators to develop expertise through experience, I think it can be done. I wonder if we could take some lessons from settings outside of the academy where this sort of thing happens all of the time and is accepted as valid. I'm thinking about athletics, plumbing, art, or even medieval guilds like tailors or shoemakers. In all of those places people became experts, in part, through experience. The caveat seems to be that the sorts of experiences that are provided are designed and guided by an expert. And, along the way, the expert is using the experience to teach by providing feedback, etc.

I'm not sure what this would look like for an administrator, but there seem to be some common principles--mentoring, legitimate peripheral participation, feedback, building a community of practice, periodic reflection on experience, and probably some I haven't thought of--that could be used as starting points.