Teaching Outside the Professional Area: An Ethnomusicologist's Perspective

May 7, 2001


Most of us teach a topic beyond our expertise at some point, whether we do so as volunteers or by administrative dictum. As an ethnomusicologist at a small liberal arts college, I've had several unexpected teaching assignments. In fact, during my first semester at Colorado College, I was assigned to teach "The American Southwest," a survey of the history, anthropology, and literature of the region. Although I hold a Bachelor's degree in anthropology, I knew nothing back then about regional studies or the history and literature of the Southwest. To make matters worse, the course included a week-long field trip to New Mexico, and I had never set foot in New Mexico. Needless to say, this was one of the greatest challenges in my teaching career, yet the skills, attitudes, and techniques I developed to cope with the situation have guided me through similar experiences and might be helpful to others.

My strategy involves four-steps: assessing personal academic strengths, assessing institutional strengths, gathering resources, and garnering institutional support (see A Strategy for Retooling below). The first two steps are critical, and it's essential to be brutally honest with yourself. If you don't have the personal and institutional strengths, try to delay the course until you've had sufficient time to retool (allow two years minimum). The retooling plan should include time for independent study as well as participation in summer courses, workshops, and conferences. You may need to learn a new language, musical instrument or style, computer program, or other skills that require formal training. The plan should include bringing a specialist to campus as a consultant and team-teacher the first time you offer the course. In other words, teaching outside your professional area is timeconsuming, labor-intensive, and expensive.

It is the administrator's responsibility to establish departmental or institutional funding priorities that support faculty development. The costs of retooling include travel to attend conferences and workshops, released time for study and course preparation, salary for a visiting professor to team-teach and consult on course design and library acquisitions, funds to purchase equipment and library materials, and honoraria for guest lecturers or artists. Where the course involves an international or regional studies component, travel funds should be provided so that the faculty member can experience the people and place prior to teaching the course. Administrators should also inform faculty members of external funding opportunities and maintain strong ties to the campus grants office. Institutional support is essential because if the faculty member has to shoulder the entire cost of retooling, teaching outside the professional area becomes a punishment rather than an opportunity for growth.

Faculty members who volunteer to teach outside the professional area sometimes meet with negative reactions. These reactions usually stem from one of two problems: either the volunteer is perceived as unqualified to teach a particular course, or there is a fundamental resistance to change in the curriculum. If the volunteer is perceived as unqualified, she should present her colleagues with a realistic strengths assessment and a detailed proposal for retooling that includes specific goals and objectives with a time frame, potential costs, sources of funding, and a statement of the budget impact on the department and library. The volunteer must demonstrate how she will acquire the skills and expertise necessary to teach the course; this reassures concerned colleagues that course preparation will be thorough and rigorous. A degree of resistance in this case is positive, because it means the faculty are exercising quality control. Resistance to change in the curriculum poses a more significant problem, but is not insurmountable. It can be overcome gradually by having guest speakers or artists present colloquia and performances that promote faculty discussion, by enlisting the support of administrators who can reaffirm curricular priorities, by initiating a strategic planning process that includes expanding the curriculum, and by participating in an external evaluation (outside reviewers make suggestions in a neutral manner that help overcome resistance to change).

My first unexpected teaching assignment had a happy ending. In preparing to teach the course, I realized I could build on existing skills and past experience, such as knowledge of Spanish, courses taken as an undergraduate and graduate student, and informal background acquired through travel and reading. An afternoon in the library revealed institutional strengths, including ample materials to support lecture preparation, daily class presentations, and student projects. Faculty specialists who had taught the course previously provided sample syllabi, reading lists, exams, project assignments, and field trip itineraries. Finally, the program director enabled me to team-teach the course with an experienced specialist that first year, and provided generous funding for my on-going education in Southwest Studies thereafter. I continued to teach the survey every year and now serve as the program director. Thus, teaching outside the professional area can be stimulating and rewarding, where personal and institutional strengths are adequate, resources are available, and institutional support is forthcoming.



A  S t r a t e g y  f o r  R e t o o l i n g

Personal Strengths Assessment

  • Have I taken relevant courses at the undergraduate or graduate level?
  • Have I conducted research on a related topic?
  • Are my foreign language skills adequate for the topic?
  • Have I acquired background through informal experiences such as travel, reading, conferences, workshops, or performance of relevant musical repertory? (Informal experiences alone are inadequate background for teaching outside the professional area, but may enhance other strengths.)

Institutional Strengths Assessment

  • Does the music library have an adequate collection of audio and video recordings, specialist journals and newsletters, reference works, monographs, scores, and a librarian with some knowledge of the topic? (The latter is necessary to support student research and creative projects.)
  • Does the college?s general library have an adequate collection of videos, specialist journals and newsletters, reference works, monographs, special collections or archival resources, relevant on-line data bases, and an interdisciplinary librarian?
  • Does the music department own relevant musical instruments?
  • Are there funds to build the library collection, bring guest artists to class, support off-campus field trips, and hire visiting faculty to team-teach or consult?

Gathering Resources

  • Obtain sample syllabi, reading lists, discographies, filmographies, exams, project assignments, field trip itineraries, concert programs, and similar course-related materials from specialist faculty members who have taught the course previously.
  • Identify the major textbooks, monographs, and journal articles on the topic and study them to learn about the integral issues and concepts of the course.
  • Become familiar with the professional journals, reference works, audio and video anthologies, and other central resources for the topic.

Garnering Institutional Support

  • Obtain funds for released time, enrollment in summer courses, participation in workshops and conferences, and relevant travel and research.
  • Obtain funds to bring a visiting specialist to campus to team-teach with you. ¥ Obtain funds to bring in guest lecturers who can cover specific topics within the course for which you are as yet under-prepared.
2360 Last modified on October 11, 2016
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