Expert and expertise

I’m wary of the role of expert. It has connotations of power over a group. And let’s be honest there’s a part of my ego that would love to fill the role of expert for the affirmation it might bring. Expertise I’m more comfortable with – it’s just a statement of competence.

The feedback from a recent nonviolent direct action workshop at Warwick University (not part of the formal academic curriculum, I hasten to add) was almost entirely positive. But it did raise the issue of expert and expertise for me. Not for the first time a student group wanted more information on my activist background than I feel comfortable giving them. Not because I’m worried about implicating myself in acts of dodgy direct action, but because it puts the spotlight on me whereas I want it to be on them (and I don’t trust myself not to enjoy the lime light just a little too much).

But am I being too dogmatic about this? Moi? Surely not. The role of facilitator is to make things easier for the group, and if a little personal background would make the session easier, then it’s a good idea. And as for the ego stuff? Time to get over myself, perhaps?

The session posed a second, equally common challenge – how to support groups through the realisation that taking effective nonviolent direct action may not be compatible with staying entirely within both the letter and the spirit of the law. Some would argue that the whole point is to stretch, if not break the law – that it’s a fundamentally disobedient discipline. There’s no judgement meant on the Weapons Out of Warwick students. There’s a natural and understandable desire to want to avoid any more trouble than is absolutely necessary. It’s probably the line between nonviolent action and nonviolent direct action. All I can hope is that I left them knowing that it’s possible to take nonviolent direct action, fall foul of the system, and live to tell the tale. The students have taken their planned action. I hope to check in with them soon and hear first hand how it went.

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One thought on “Expert and expertise

  1. Hey there
    Thanks for writing about this issue, it’s an interesting one.
    I’ve been noticing how little I tell participants about myself when I’m facilitating. Partly it’s about my comfort levels early in a workshop – I want to get them talking, I don’t want to be the centre of attention. So I can tend to skip over introducing myself very quickly. In a couple of opening circles recently I’ve given participants a prompt which gets them to show themselves, and then I haven’t answered it myself. Whoops! This hasn’t be intentional but I guess it says something about where my focus is.
    I have been developing new workshops on public narrative – using our personal stories in organising as per the good work of Marshal Ganz and the New Organizing Institute. Part of that has been honing and practising telling my own story. It’s tough! I find it pushes against some Australian reticence to talk about myself, as well as a conditioned (and professionally very useful) tendency to deflect attention and focus on others. It would be interesting to hear how this stuff works in a British context.
    One thought – I think if I don’t tell people about my background, but I seem to know a bunch of stuff, it makes me a bit mysterious i.e. ‘how did she got to know all that?’ So perhaps sharing more about our experiences is about transparency, which works against a sense of us as inaccessible experts.

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