It’s a question that I often ask my students, trying to ascertain what interests them and which accomplishments give them the most pride. This is useful to 1.) get to know the students better in order to establish a relationship and find ways to make the curriculum more relevant to them and 2.) have an arsenal of ideas for each of them when they inevitably say, “I don’t know what to write.”
After all, the cliché “write what you know” gets touted to would-be authors both young and old. And though the phrase is both overused and sometimes misused, its basic premise has sound logic. You do need a baseline of knowledge about what you are writing in order to fill your work with truth and emotion (not to mention to make it make sense).
Children seem to find this “what are you an expert in?” question surprisingly easy–they’re an expert in multiplication or basketball or taking care of their younger siblings or reading a book. They can rattle off a litany of skills that they have acquired over their few years, and, in my experience, their self-described expertises are usually true.
It might seem silly to label a six-year-old as an expert at reading a book, since they will inevitably learn so much more about reading as they grow older and read more, but I don’t use the word “expert” to inflate the student’s ego or imply that they have mastered a certain area. Rather, I use the term to make them think deeply about their strengths and to acknowledge their background or cultural knowledge about a particular topic. (That was education jargon that means that every student enters a learning situation with a variety of family and life experiences that inform what they already know.)
And then when that “I don’t know what to write” phrase is uttered, I whip out my list of strengths that the student came up with themself and tell them to choose one. These expert areas can inform not only how-tos (tell me how to play basketball), but also narratives (write a story about basketball), and essays (detail the pros and cons of a particular rule in basketball or choose a famous basketball player to write about).
In which areas do you possess an expertise?
I was introspecting on this question lately, and I had a realization: I don’t know how I would answer it.
I mean, I have some simple, obvious answers. I’m an expert in comedy T.V. shows (but not The Office, which, I know, shame on me). I’m an expert in writing for this blog. I’m an expert in being myself. (Just know that as I was writing that last sentence, I had a big, cheesy smile on my face.)
As an adult, coming up with an “expertise list” is not that easy. Perhaps it’s because of my own hangups or perhaps it’s because of the frustrating “valley of despair” part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but I can almost always find a reason why I’m not an expert in any given area. I have definitely put in my 10,000 hours for writing, but I can think of countless other writers (many of whom are WordPress bloggers!) who are leagues and leagues better than me. I know a lot about linguistics, but I didn’t study it in college. I did study education in college, but I don’t have a PhD in it, nor do I have decades of teaching experience.
The truth is, I’m a bit of a dabbler. I listen to podcasts about economics, I read news stories about politics, and I watch videos about filmmaking. I don’t have a singular passion; in fact, I would consider striving to know a little about a lot to be my primary passion. I’m very fickle with my interests and I love a lot of different topics. That’s also the main reason why I’m so drawn to teaching: because I, myself, adore learning and I want other people to like learning, too.
I would say that phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” applies wells to me.
This lack of a singular focus can be pretty aggravating sometimes. The whole reason why this question popped into my head is because a few days ago when I was thinking about what I should do for this blog post, I couldn’t think of anything of substance to say. Much like various students that I’ve had over the years, I didn’t know what to write. How can I “write what I know” when I don’t know anything as in-depth as I want to?
At the very least, I guess I can rest easy in acknowledging that I am enough of an expert in not knowing things to crank out a whole blog post about it.
So those were my whining, self-deprecating thoughts. But I would never talk to someone else the way that I just wrote about myself, so I’m going to flip the script now and engage in some positive self-talk.
Did you know that there is a longer version of the “jack of all trades” phrase I quoted above? It reads “Jack of all trades, master of none, oftentimes better than master of one.” (Some sources even say that this longer version is the original one.) “Jack of all trades” can be used as a praise rather than an insult.
I can choose to view my fickle, dabbling nature as the thing that makes me well-rounded. It allows me hold my own in a conversation about almost anything, be it physics, language acquisition, or the first few seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. And a variety of innovations and inventions came from someone who realized the connection between two seemingly separate arenas in which they had an interest, so I think I’m in pretty good company.
In the first part of this post, I mentioned that my use of the word “expert” with my students is not meant to say that they know everything there is to know about an area; it’s meant to make them think about the knowledge they already possess and how that allows them to talk about that topic with logic, truth, and emotion. While I don’t necessarily think that as an adult I should claim to be an expert in just any area where I possess knowledge, I shouldn’t allow myself to be scared away from a topic simply because I don’t have a PhD. in it. In fact, I should allow that desire to know more about more to help me in my discussions of topics.
Thus, I don’t need to narrow my focuses to be a be a better blogger or person. I only need to utilize the diverse knowledge that I have gained through dabbling to inform my future writings. I will try to keep that in my the next time I say to myself, “I don’t know what to write.”
What Am I an Expert In?
Here’s a more extensive list of some of the very specific (and silly) areas where I would proclaim an expertise:
- remembering things for other people
- plant-based home cooking (just ask me about egg substitutes)
- making to do lists (but not so much at executing them)
- making toast without a toaster (I have two different methods!)
- making a bat out of construction paper, tissue, paper clips and decoupage
- recognizing the formula of stand up comedy
- connecting education principles to the world of national intelligence (I took a course in national intelligence in which most [if not all] of the other students were majoring in something relating to the political sphere, and the professor assigned us an essay about how intelligence was related to our future careers. I don’t want to brag, but I did get an A on that writing and on the course.)
- using a dictionary
- sorting color tiles based on tints, shades, tones, etc.
- hula-hooping (but only around my waist)
After that somewhat self-aggrandizing list, I want to know what do you think you are an expert in? Leave me a list in a comment. I’d love to read it!
Unlike most of my other blog posts, I relied on my previous knowledge to write this one, but I feel like I should include some resources (some of which are also linked in the post) in case you want to learn more, so here they are:
An article about utilizing and gaining background knowledge called The Importance of Activating and Building Knowledge
The Wikipedia page for the Dunning-Kruger effect (linked in the blog post as well)
The original study by Dunning and Kruger called Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.(It’s behind a pay-wall because, of course, scientific papers cannot be accessible for all. [I mean, I do get it. Scientific journals need to make money somehow. I just wish that knowledge wasn’t so expensive.] You can always check and see if your local library has a catalog of journals. If you have a log-in for a university library, they will probably have it.)
A blog post about the Dunning-Kruger effect (from which I pulled the image that I linked to about the “valley of despair”)
This xkcd panel that references the Dunning-Kruger effect (this one isn’t necessarily informative, but it is funny)
This article about the benefits of positive self-talk (linked in the blog post as well)
The Wikipedia entry for the “jack of all trades” adage (linked in the blog post as well)
This Harvard review article about the benefits of both generalists and specialists (linked in the blog post as well)