Emerging from the first week of classes, I find myself reflecting on my class preparation and the anxiety I often feel around demonstrating “mastery” of the texts I assign each week. After years of being a student myself, I feel pressure to make sure I understand every element of the text clearly so that I can then clearly communicate to my class the arguments being made by the author. Once I feel like I comfortably understand the analyses being presented, I design my class around having students engage with the nuances and tensions that the author presents around the topic. As an example, this week students are reading a chapter from a book called “How the Brain Changes Itself” on brain plasticity. As a social psychologist, my research area tends to steer away from biological bases of behavior, yet there is an expectation that I should position myself as an authority figure on the topic. For my prep this week, I read through the text and took notes on it—and developed understanding about a theory that I previously knew very little about. This took almost an entire morning, and I was exhausted by the afternoon with little capacity to work on anything else.
As much as I try to resist any claims to expertise and engage in discussion with my students about myths of objectivity, hierarchies of knowledge, and the ways in which each of us have our own informed theories about human behavior and experience, the expectation to perform expertise is a constant presence in academia. As a young woman of color scholar who often gets mistaken for a student at institutions I am teaching at, the pull is even stronger to negate any stereotypes people might have about who can be seen as “expert” over their own experiences. The reality is that we are all learning, just as our students are. My lack of previous knowledge about the topic for this week validated my commitment to resist some of the power dynamics that exist between professors and students, for the simple fact that I will never be an expert—and neither will anyone else. This myth that academics cannot be wrong or that they need to exert authority over material in a way that positions them as infallible not only hurts our students, but it hurts educators too—especially those of us who do not conform to traditional standards of how an academic should behave or perform. After a morning of heavy note-taking, highlighting, and intense scrutinizing over every sentence of the text I assigned, I realized the strength of this myth, and hope to grow into my own imperfection as an educator.