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Specialist? Or expert?

What makes a specialist?  What makes an expert? These are the questions that haunt me on Sunday afternoons, apparently.

If you were to look me up on my fancy new website you would see that I do most of my teaching in the contemporary period, and, if I’m lucky, in either Canadian poetry or Canadian literary and cultural topics more generally. If you were to look at my Dalhousie faculty page you can see a different presentation of my specializations. However, if you were to ask me whether I was an expert in something or other I wouldn’t immediately know what to say.

Take, for example, a typical Saturday: for me involves writing several of my lectures for the upcoming week. Though I have now been teaching more or less full time since I finished my PhD in 2008 it has only been in the last year or so that I have been able to teach a class for the second or third time. Inevitably, every semester I am teaching at least one new course. Now, while the courses I teach are in my areas of specialization–albeit sometimes broadly speaking–I certainly can’t profess to be an expert in Canadian Gothic Revival Architecture or Jeremy Bentham or Charles G.D. Roberts, for that matter. Can I lecture on these topics and figures? Of course I can, and I can say with some confidence that I do so fairly well. Indeed, two of the three topics I listed even fall under one or more of the categories of my  candidacy exams (which were 19th and 20th century women’s writing in English, contemporary critical theory, and contemporary Canadian poetry). However, expert I am not.

Certainly, part of my broad specialization comes from my extensive teaching experience. As a limited term appointment I teach between 6-9 courses a year (that’s including spring term). Though I am amused by the (fallacious) assumption that because I am an ‘expert in literature’ I am good at things like Scrabble, I am mostly happy with my specializations being broad and my interests being many. Further, I should say that while I have broad specializations I am categorizable when it comes to the terms set out by job advertisements. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering, are the pressures of the current job market as well as the increasing focus on graduate student professionalization changing scholars from experts to specialists? From specialists to experts? Or are experts endangered? Or is the difference between the two terms merely a difference in approach? Am I just creating false dichotomies? And, so long as the teaching and research is solid, does it matter?

When I asked two colleagues what they thought of my question about the difference between specialists and experts they were both of the general opinion that the difference between the two has always existed. One colleague related that she had seen a compelling talk by an expert in the music and culture of 1934. When asked what his next book would be, he replied ‘1935!’ I am awed by the ability to think, research, and write in such a systematic way. Such expertise and depth of knowledge reminds me of my first Romantic literature professor who could recite not only the Wordsworth’s poems, but also revisions, and letters referencing revisions. From memory! But I’m equally awed by the ability of a scholar who can pull together diverse references, time periods, and approaches to unpack a set of questions.

What do you think, readers? Is there a difference between an expert and a specialist? Do you call yourself one or the other?

4 thoughts on “Specialist? Or expert?

  1. First, Scrabble is more about tactics than about vocabulary.

    Second, work by Shari Graydon and others has repeatedly shown that women in general have a FANTASTIC amount of difficulty calling themselves expert or specialist in anything. It is worth flagging this gendered behaviour because it usually means that women look dumber or less learned than they are, compared with men who happily suffer no such imposter syndrome.

    So. If you are a woman, you should know that you probably should call yourself an expert specialist more often than you do, because you are disproportionately likely to underplay your credentials or expertise.

    Third, for myself, I would say I'm a specialist in digital media (that's my general field in this great big discipline: I am in trained in English, but I specialize in digital media). And I would say I'm an expert in social media (that's where my last several years of publication have gone) and in the history of computing (dissertation).

    For me, in conclusion, specialist is for more general (ha!) and expert is for most specific.


  2. The difference for me is whether I could speak to a non-academic audience with authority on my topic. If I'm an expert, I can. If I'm a specialist, probably I can just speak to academic audiences. Job hiring categorizations are pretty irrelevant here…I was hired as “Other” and I'd hardly say that I'm an expert in that!


  3. Really interesting takes on my questions–thanks to you both!

    I think I have conflated two big questions into one post though. I really do wonder if the current climate is creating a push for specialists or experts.


  4. Erin, Josh and I were talking about Scrabble/crosswords yesterday. He said with crosswords, if you do enough of them you find patterns in the clues that keep popping up, and you would only really recognise them if you do a lot of crosswords. Same with Scrabble, I hate playing it with people who are good at it because it is all tactics and trickery. To be able to memorise enough two letter combinations to get the most point. I like to arbitrarily add a rule: if you cannot use the word in a sentence, you cannot play it in Scrabble”. Not that this has anything to do on your post, it just made me think about how Scrabble is a frustrating game for people who aren't good at memorising.


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