generational mentorship · guest post · learning

Guest post: On not being the expert;

or what I learn from my teenage son;
or where I never expected to find myself over the past few summers

I have been giving a lot of thought lately about the idea of being an expert, partly due to my stage of professional life.  I just recently completed the tenure and promotion process successfully (an experience that is likely worth another blog post).  While it took about 6 months from when I submitted my dossier until the final decision point, the whole process was more than a decade in the making.  This time was spent building and demonstrating expertise and having it recognized by others.  And at the same time, I did not necessarily explore and learn new things; after all, that would take me away from becoming an expert and getting tenure and promotion.

But what happens when you open yourself to a new knowledge area, even in your personal life?  What might it mean for teaching, research and other professional activities?  How can you handle some of the anxiety that comes from not knowing while embracing the potential that comes with that very situation?  Good questions all around.

And thus began a journey into heavy metal music, perhaps the not most obvious starting point to exploring these questions. 

First, as bit of background, as a family, we have always worked to be supportive of each other’s interests, including musical ones.  For our son, that interest is heavy metal with all its different styles.  (Did you know that there are about 24 different genres of heavy metal, each very distinct? Who knew? See here for more info.)  Given the variety, much of it having changed since I was a teen, I quickly realized that more learning was needed to understand, if not appreciate, the music and the associated culture.

And so, I turned to reference material (I am an academic after all.)  I read books, such as Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal by Ian Christie.  I watched documentaries, such as Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey by University of Victoria alumni Sam Dunn.  And I even took a course on metal through continuing education.  (I did say I was an academic.)  These were useful for the “theory” of the music but did not really help me understand or fully engage with it.  What was left was full immersion and so off to several metal festivals we went.  (It was easy to spot me in the crowd – the middle age Canadian mom with no tattoos.)

For the past two years, we have gone to the holy land of metal: Wacken Open Air  for the full immersion experience with music, camping, beer, dust and much more.   
(We also added Graspop Metal Meeting, this year.) 

These were much more enjoyable than I thought they would be.  Some of the music has even “grown” on me and now occupies space on my playlist.  Proudly, I can now identify the artist/band correctly about 10% of the time, up from 0 at the outset.

So what have I learned through this?  First, while it is humbling and often embarrassing not to be an expert, it is also quite exhilarating, freeing and perhaps even a bit of fun.  You are able to ask (lots) questions without feeling like you have to already know the answer.  Second, by reversing the roles of teacher-learner, just about anyone becomes your teacher, especially those who we often spend the most time teaching, our children.  It also opens the possibility of new conversations as my son and I now discuss which metal band has the best stage presence, something I never thought I would have with anyone.  (My vote is split between Alice Cooper, Rammstein, and Alestorm.)   

Alice Cooper





Third, it has been very useful to remember what our students face each term and the ways that I as instructor can respond to their questions and anxiety while fostering their desire to learn more.  (And here is the big thanks to my son who is always patient in answering my often ill-informed and repetitive questions as I struggle to identify music, bands, etc.)  Fourth, there is nothing like the “field school”/immersion to fully explore a topic.  Books, movies and other resources can only take you so far until you have to experience something to appreciate it.  And finally, it is okay to never become an expert in a field.  It is possible to learn just enough to appreciate a topic and enjoy the ride.  And with my trusty camera in hand, we are off Wacken for a third time next year.

If you are interested in more photos from Wacken, Graspop and other music festivals, see my blog.  I also got a photo credit from the Globe and Mail for one of my pictures from Wacken.  See the banner picture here.

Lynne Siemens 
University of Victoria
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