Contextual expertise

These last few days there was a big publication deadline in my field, so grad students were scrambling to get their papers finished on time. Weeks like this are exhilarating and exhausting, in equal measure.

From time to time a student would ask me questions about how they should write their paper. And each time this question would trigger something in me.

I would start to verbally outline the possible research questions, methods for empirical validation, engineering tasks, prior and related work, larger overarching themes, possible future directions, and an entire host of other things.

While this was happening, somewhere in the back of my mind I would be thinking “How am I saying all these things? I’m not really as smart as this guy whose words are coming out of my mouth right now.”

And I’d realize that this expertise is almost entirely contextual. The right question, in the right circumstance, triggers my brain to operate in a certain way, evoking a kind of “expert mode”. This is not a mode that I can simply conjure up at will — it surfaces only when needed.

I suppose we all have these little pockets of contextual expertise, ways of thinking and problem solving that emerge from our minds only when we need them. And when we no longer need them, they retract back to some remote corner of our brain, returning us to our usual, slightly clueless selves.

One Response to “Contextual expertise”

  1. sharon says:

    I suppose it is a form of inspiration, like feelings of love or loss that produce poetry where it might not otherwise have been forthcoming. How wonderful that the people you work with inspire you this way!

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