June 18, 2015

So this phrase "subject matter expert"… it's bubbled up in the periphery a few times since I've been more involved in online teaching. I don't remember when I first heard it, and I also don't know its full history. As best I can tell, it seems to be used in some online education communities to distinguish between people who know about specific course content and those who know about education/technology/pedagogy.

Last week, an administrator at our school used the phrase to refer to me.

Um, What? 

I'm not one to throw titles around, and usually I could do without one. I think that words are important, though. What we call ourselves is important. In this case, it took hearing the label applied to me to make my feelings about the phrase crystal clear.

I'm not a "subject matter expert" or a "content expert." To me, that implies a unidimensional contribution to the classroom or course development process: a person who exclusively provides information and fact-checking and perhaps some contextualization.

That's not me. That's not what I offer.

First of all, I balk at calling myself an expert at anything.

Second of all, I'm an associate professor. Or in other words, I'm an experienced faculty member. I am the person who signs my name verifying that the students have or have not met the course outcomes. Ultimately it's my job to help them meet the outcomes.

So what do I do that's not "content"?

I have a rich history of exploring strategies in the classroom, thinking about how to convey the material I'm trying to teach, and dealing with the multi-dimensional problems that arise in doing so.

I know how to deal with students who are falling behind. Students who are struggling, balking, rebelling, cheating, dying, having babies, goofing off, and/or scared shitless. Students living through heart-wrenching challenges, students having existential crises, students who doubt themselves, students who are overconfident: I work with all of them.

I know exactly at which point in the semester students will lose motivation. I can predict when they workload will seem unmanageable and when they'll be tempted to slack off and what to do about it when they do. I know when they'll kick into panic mode, and when spring fever will set in.

I have experience handling a talkative bunch and a stubbornly silent one.

I know - intimately, in great lived detail - the pros and cons of different types of activities and assessments in different classroom settings.

I know what to do when no one understands the lesson.

I know what to do when a student blames me when he falls behind.

I can gracefully navigate a plagiarism incident to the point where students thank me for the experience.

I can handle a botched assignment or a rebelling group.

I like to think that I can inspire the students, turn their fear into excitement and nudge them along just enough to motivate them but not enough to distance them.

And all of that has both nothing and everything to do with the course content.

It's part of teaching.

When we separate the teaching and the teacher from the content, we run the risk of losing the human experience, the continuity and the humanity in our courses.

Let's not do that.

Please, please: don't call me a subject matter expert.

What can you call me instead?

How about Camille? Or if you need something more formal, let's just stick with "associate professor." Or even "faculty member."​ No more "subject matter expert," though. Last week was the first and hopefully the last time I'll be dealing with that one. 

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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