Don’t ask the expert!

One of the core philosophies in my teaching was to move away from single-use or disposable assignments, and move to something more durable. Let’s face it: students create too many essays that disappear into a digital drawer at the end of the semester, never to be seen again. Their labour gets a grade, but it doesn’t do anything to change the world. What if I tell you that it could? (At least a small piece of the world?) I wrote about that on my teaching blog. I also knew that in my narrative statement for tenure, I had to explain to my colleagues why I chose to have students create textbooks for fellow students. Can’t I, as the expert in the room, do this better, because I actually know the topics? Here’s the main reason why I trusted my students to do a better job:

Panel 1: a person stands on top of a mountain waiving to a perplexed person at the foot of the mountain. Text: "Experts already know the way, and forget a beginner doesn't know the footholds."
Panel 2: Same person at the top, person at the foot now waves and has a rucksak. The mountain is mapped with instructions such as "ignore left path at the start, expect a detour, pause here, tunnel of doom, elevator shortcut". Text: "A novice remembers where the tricky parts were and can provide more detailed guidance: 1- hoe to prepare for the journey; 2: provide a better map."
Why experts may be a bit too much for a beginner

Sure, I know the content, but I don’t remember anymore what it is like to be new to all of East Asian history. An undergraduate student is perfectly positioned to bridge that gap. (Also check out Adam Grant‘s piece in the NYT.) And of course: students are experts in knowing what a student needs from a textbook, much more so than I am. So I let them write the textbooks for China’s Magical Creatures (and where to find them) and Korean History, and their successors in the course used those chapters as their starter kits before diving into primary and scholarly sources. And then they get to write their own chapter, or improve our existing textbook. The third edition of China’s Magical Creatures is coming out soon!

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