For those of us who work in higher education, this is the story of our academic lives: we're often assigned to teach classes on subjects that we are no more knowledgeable about than the students. Yes, the subject is probably within the realm of our field of study, but still...many times, we wind up learning the material along with the students.
However, most of us are smart enough to keep our mouths shut about that fact because we want to maintain an air of authority so our students will be cooperative. Not this guy, though:
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (which, alas, is behind an evil paywall), anthropology professor Robert Trivers claims he was assigned to teach a class called "Human Aggression" last semester, despite having absolutely no knowledge of the subject. In his first lecture, he reportedly told students he would do his best to learn the material with them, which seems to be what got him in trouble.
At the end of the article, we are informed that this professor has been suspended in the past for being involved in confrontations with other faculty members, so he was probably already on a short leash with the administration. Regardless, for someone to be suspended for what is ultimately a failing on the part of the administration and is currently a pervasive problem in higher education does not exactly seem fair.
In an interview with student-run newspaper The Daily Targum last month, Trivers said he was suspended for getting students involved. "I complained right away and repeatedly that I know very little about the subject," he said. "You would think the University would show a little respect for my teaching abilities on subjects that I know about and not force me to teach a course on a subject that I do not at all master."
We weren't in his classroom, so perhaps the extent to which he emphasized his lack of expertise was disruptive to the learning process. I was in his exact position last semester when I was assigned to teach biopsychology (also known as behavioral neuroscience) and I did let on to my students that I'm a developmental psychologist by training and am thus not an expert on this topic. However, I didn't complain about the university administration to my students, nor did I make them feel like I resented having to teach them the subject despite my lack of expertise.
Fellow academics, how have you dealt with this situation in the past? To what extent, if any, did you let on to your students your lack of expertise in the subject you were assigned to teach? Is being assigned to teach courses outside of your knowledge area a widespread problem at your institution?