Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Marking and Modesty

As someone with a philosophy background who has recently come to work in an education department, I am teaching - and more recently, marking papers - in areas that I am not an expert in myself. This wasn’t such an issue in the first term, as I was teaching one general introduction/student skills course, and one philosophy of education course. It was relatively straightforward to adapt to these. However, one of the courses I am marking this term requires me to assess research portfolios including a semi-structured interview.

I have never done this kind of research myself. Philosophical research consists of reading and reflection. I am more fond of data than the average philosopher, but I’ve never gathered the data myself, and I’ve never interviewed anyone in a research context.

I was very much intimidated by the prospect of assessing other people on a kind of work that I have not done myself. For much of my career I have been convinced that my authority as an educator comes from one place: my greater level of expertise in the subject than my students. For this reason, I have never been comfortable projecting a level of competence that I do not actually feel, and have felt a certain amount of contempt for people who do.

Only recently have I come to the conclusion that actually, subject expertise isn’t where my authority as an educator primarily comes from. Rather, my authority as an educator comes from my capacity to educate.

In the case of marking, I know what good writing looks like, what a clear structure looks like, what suitable academic sources are, what good referencing and citation is. I know when my students are overgeneralising, when they are misinterpreting the evidence they present, when they are biased, when they are bluffing and haven’t done the necessary research. I know all of this even if I haven’t read all the same sources they have (which with independent research projects I generally won’t have). That means that I can assess their work, and give meaningful feedback, even if I am not an expert in the area.

However, I retain the instinct that intellectual modesty is generally a good thing. I don’t want to claim to be an expert in areas that I am not; but I also don’t want to lose my authority with my students. The trick is to learn how to say ‘I don’t know’, with a sense of authority.

  • I’m not sure of the policy on that, I’ll need to check and get back to you.

  • You want me to explain X? I haven’t read that source (recently), I’ll need to take a look.

These are not shameful responses. On the contrary, they build trust. If I admit when I don’t know something, they will believe me when I say that I do know something.

Another aspect of this attitude is an openness to the possibility that the students may know something I don’t. I am marking first-year students, many of whom have English as a second language. When I come across a word I haven’t heard of, there is a knee-jerk response of ‘that’s not a word’. I’ve resisted that response, and looked the word up. I have thereby twice increased my vocabulary in the last couple of days: ‘undercome’ is in fact a word, as is ‘sanative’.

Intellectual modesty is not without its pitfalls. If unchecked, it can edge into imposter syndrome, particularly if people around you do not practice it, and therefore appear to be more confident and knowledgeable than you (whether they are or not). If intellectual modesty is combined with a retiring demeanour (or frankly ‘if you are a woman’), it can be mistaken by others for incompetence. There is therefore much motivation to set it aside.

But I don’t intend to.

Intellectual modesty makes me a better teacher, a better thinker, a better writer. It keeps me open to learning from unexpected sources. It helps to build positive relationships with the people I teach and the people I learn from, who are often the same people. And I would modestly suggest that makes it something to be proud of.

If you'd like to hear about my upcoming courses and events, like "How Not to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" or "The yet to be named Philosophy course based on Doctor Who." please sign up to my mailing list and I will very very occasionally send you information about these things.