The Humility of Expertise: Modeling Responsible Ethos

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I read with fascination a recent academic Twitter thread about why so many instructors still teach students not to use “I” in academic writing. A quick skim of the responses (which are all over the place) reveals that the worry is actually about the challenging task of teaching students to shape their writerly ethos. 

I’ve written before about helping students find their voice in academic conversations, without channeling a beginner’s arrogant authority. However you teach this in your own courses (and I confess, I’m curious to hear), using an “I” in writing should be seen as both a rhetorical and political decision. As a feminist scholar, I invite students to see the “I” as a truth-telling pronoun, acknowledging that the writer has a standpoint, with their own insights and biases. Knowledge doesn’t descend from the mountaintops, it is produced by humans whose experiences enrich and delimit what we think we know. Our students deserve to be invited into the fullness of this conversation as they, too, make decisions about their presence on the page.

Two recent talks for on our campus by scholars Dr. Michelle Téllez and Dr. Diana G. Foster offered good models for the confidence and humility that can (or should) come with expertise. My students noticed.

Dr. Michelle Téllez spoke about her groundbreaking work on reimagining borderlands, work which is also available on her visually rich website. Afterward, my students remarked on her expert insights earned from many years of ethnographic research and relationship-building, but also her humility as she makes evident that she continues to think, explore, learn, and test ideas. For example, Dr. Téllez said after she answered one audience member’s question, “That’s my best answer for now.” That’s a sentence to remember and use.

Students heard similar humility in the appealingly written research by Dr. Diana G. Foster, the principle investigator of The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having or being Denied an Abortion. Foster spoke about her commitment to making the study’s findings accessible to the general public, both in the book and in the website, which has rich visual, quantitative, and qualitative data. Repeatedly in her talk and book, Dr. Foster says versions of, “I admit I was surprised …” and “I had expected to find X, but what we found over the long run was Y.” Rather than editing out this growth experience through the presentation of data, Foster reminds us that effective research involves being humble and open for the conversations to come. Isn’t that what we hope to model for our students?

What academic voices do you consider models, for your students and for yourself? I’d love to learn.


Image Credit: "The Letter I" by Marc Telesha is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.