Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Who’s the Real Expert?

By Lucie Ugarte  | Inquiry Essay

Many people assume that the highly educated have the most reliable knowledge in all aspects of their field of study, but that may not always be the case. The value of outside-of- academia knowledge can be seen through the story of Janet Stephens, a hairdresser who used her practical knowledge of hair to disprove academic theories that surrounded seemingly impossible ancient Roman hairdos depicted in sculptures and other artifacts (Pesta). While reading ancient texts mentioning one of these hairstyles, she realized that a Latin word that was often translated as “hairpin” due to the hairstyling context was actually “needle” (Stephens, 114). She knew that the particular hairstyle being described could not be held up by hairpins due to the mechanics of hair, and must have been physically sewn together with a needle and thread (Stephens, 115-116). After catching this error, she proved that the hairstyle, before thought to be artistic depictions or wigs, could be recreated with needle and thread on real hair (Pesta). Stephens presented her findings to the Journal of Roman Archeology, eventually composing an article which they published (Pesta). In this case, a “practical” expert had the curiosity, time, and other resources to seek out academic experts and enter the scholarly conversation on the topic. After hearing her story, I began to wonder how often academia creates theories or makes assumptions needlessly when the knowledge they require already exists outside of academia.

In general, society views those with high levels of education as the ultimate authority on their field of study, taking their “expert” opinion as fact. However, as we saw with Janet Stephens, it’s possible that these academics are missing information known to people who have first-hand experiences with a given subject but not the prestige of a scholar. If there are gaps in academic knowledge that could be filled in with this information, those gaps possess the potential to hinder the accuracy of academic work we as aspiring scholars consider factual.
Before thinking about the impact these gaps may have, we must first explore what information is potentially known to non-academics but not communicated to academics. There are some academic papers on the general topic of the lack of communication between academics and non-academics, referring to it as the “academic-practitioner divide”. In these papers, the term “academics” refers to people who are in an academy teaching, studying, doing research or generating knowledge. The people who have the practical knowledge academics lack are categorized as “practitioners”, people who work in the field that academics research.

In these papers, few argue that there is a lack of communication between these two groups; and although most of the discussion revolves around practitioners not accessing academic knowledge, some academics acknowledge that practitioners have knowledge that academics do not. In their paper “The Great Academic-Practitioner Divide: A Tale of Two Paradigms”, McNat, Glassman and Glassman make the point that whereas academics usually have great theoretical knowledge, practitioners often have better practical knowledge (10). The authors of the article value the special expertise of the practitioner, writing that the assumption that academics are the only experts is false and that the knowledge unique to practitioners could complement that of academics and help researchers in their studies (McNat, Glassman and Glassman 10).

However, what many academic conversations don’t often discuss is the possibility [changed from “idea”] that knowledge from practitioners may not make its way into academic circles. Because academics tend to be in a higher class than their corresponding practitioners, some insight on this topic may be gained from looking at how knowledge fails to travel from lower classes into higher classes. In her book Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement, Linda Flower hypothesizes why knowledge held by the lower class is rarely communicated to the rest of the world.  She asserts that due to the Enlightenment's influence over how we carry out and interpret arguments, voices not educated in the Enlightenment method of presenting arguments are not taken seriously in larger public discourse (Flower, 32). To my knowledge, academics are expected to formally follow the method of presenting arguments within academia much more stringently than those engaged in general public discourse. 

Flower finds the exclusion of non-Enlightenment-educated voices in general discourse problematic not only because it excludes those who didn’t have access to this education, but also because Enlightenment-style arguments inherently exclude lower-class viewpoints (32). To elaborate on the latter point, Flower articulates that the Enlightenment way of thought only values “empirical evidence” and uncontroversial ideas as valid support for arguments (32). Flower takes issue with this because what was considered uncontroversial was decided only by white male property holders during the Enlightenment, and she suggests the situation has not improved much since then (32). Today, it seems to me that we rarely consult people who would be below merchant middle class during the Enlightenment as experts and therefore run the risk of excluding people from discussions where they may have relevant knowledge. To be fair, these rules are in place for important reasons and do serve a purpose, especially in academia. My purpose for including this information was not necessarily to criticize academia for following these rules, but to consider what knowledge may not enter academia because of such restrictions.

Besides excluding information expressed by those who “cannot or will not play by its rules” (32), Flowers explains how Enlightenment values exclude lower class voices further by
dictating what is and isn’t appropriate to have public conversations about. She states that during the Enlightenment, the bourgeois decided what matters were appropriate for public talk and what were meant to be discussed in private (30). She explains that the topics that the bourgeois deemed inappropriate for public discussion, such as working conditions, were ones that the working class was familiar with, while the ones that were deemed suitable for public discussion were ones that benefited the middle merchant class (31). This entire body of knowledge may be excluded from academic conversations because it is deemed improper to talk about.
According to Flower, both the Enlightenment form of argument and ideas of what is inappropriate to speak about publicly may narrow down the people actually able to engage in public discourse to an elite few (33). Flower believes that finding a way to incorporate many different voices could be beneficial to the conversation at hand and that the different knowledge bases held between the different classes of academics and practitioners could complement each other (34).

A concrete example of the value of outside-of-academia knowledge can be seen through the story of Janet Stephens, mentioned in my introduction. Stephens, a hairdresser, was able to bring scholarship-altering information to the table from her practical experience. What perhaps also deserves exploration is that Stephens was only able to enter the conversation or even know that mislead theories were floating around academia because of her previous academic background. Stephens was able to contribute to academic knowledge because she could read Latin and had access to the documents, something that is probably not common among other hairdressers. As is the case with practitioners, members of the general public are not likely to be in communication with academics. When Ellen Cushman was a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she wrote of the divide between her school’s community and the lower class community of the city the school was physically located in. In her paper “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change”, she evidences the deep rift between these communities by showing both the physical and social distance between the two groups (Cushman, 8). Cushman shows this distance by describing the school physically moving away from the rest of the city over time and the derogatory and othering language used by students to refer to people who lived in the city (8). She criticizes the academy for enforcing this divide by being exclusive in admittance and by differentiating people who pass through the academy as “experts”, putting too much value on their specialized knowledge over to the knowledge of someone with a different background (Cushman, 11). It is quite possible that some knowledge, like Stephen’s knowledge of the physical mechanics of hair, are known to some practitioners and members of the general public but never communicated to academics.

However, there are academics (Cushman included) that reach out to communities outside of academia, trying to open up communication between the two groups. One engaged academic, Patricia Elliot, observed that when working directly with other communities, “the research products are necessarily as dynamic, creative, and diverse as the community members involved” (Elliott, 20). In spite of that, Elliott also observed that it is difficult for academics to pursue this type of work due to the conflict between the nature of community engagement and how academics’ performances are measured (23). Elliot pointed out that many academics who seek out these new forms of knowledge are taking professional risks because of institutional restrictions like publishing quotas and the collaborative nature of projects from community engagement, which is typically less valued than a single-authored article (23). From at least one academic’s perspective, it seems while communication with non-academics can be rewarding, it can be difficult due to restrictions that come with their job.
In defense of academics who choose not to engage with outside communities, I would like to explore a small point Elliott made in the beginning of her piece. She pointed out that community-based scholarship is not inherently better than theoretical scholarship, depending on what the situation calls for (Elliott, 20). For her particular research topic, where she engaged with the community to conduct her research involved investigating the cause of an HIV/AIDS epidemic in Saskatchewan, it is clear that asking the actual people involved was appropriate (Elliott, 23). She didn’t offer specific examples of when it would be better to take a theoretical approach, but I could imagine certain subjects, like, say, philosophy, that are theoretical in nature and may require more purely theoretical research. Unlike Elliott’s research project, which required learning about a specific epidemic for the practical purpose of helping those affected by it, it seems to me that the purpose of more theoretical fields is to gather knowledge with no application in mind. That difference in purpose, for the research, for application or for pure knowledge, may be a distinguishing factor between benefiting or not benefiting from practical knowledge.

I could envision the different topics of study as a spectrum. On one end, there are projects like Elliott’s, where it is possible that non-academics with life experience with the topic may know the most about the subject matter. In the middle, there are projects like Stephen’s hairdo research, where both academic and practical knowledge complement each other. I feel like these are the projects where it is not always obvious that non-academic knowledge is missing from academic research where it could be helpful. Finally, on the opposite end, I could envision placing the highly theoretical research topics with no direct relation to the world outside of academia. An academic studying a very advanced, niche topic may not have much to gain from non-traditional experts. All research pursuits require different types of expertise in differing amounts, and it could be any knowledge from either background (practitioner or academe) could be just as important.

As a society, we place a high value of academic knowledge. It is entirely possible that the value we place on that knowledge will only increase if the door is left open for practitioner- knowledge to wander in and be welcomed when it has evidence and analysis to contribute.

Works Cited

Bartunek, Jean M. "Academic-Practitioner Collaboration Need Not Require Joint or Relevant Research: Toward a Relational Scholarship of Integration." The Academy of Management Journal 50.6 (2007): 1323-333. Web.

Cushman, Ellen. "The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change."College Composition and Communication 47.1 (1996): 7-28. Web.

Elliott, Patricia W. "Claiming Space for Square Pegs: Community-Engaged Communication Scholarship and Faculty Assessment Policies." Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 42, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 19-32. EBSCOhost, true&db=a9h&AN=121603665&site=ehost-live.

Flower, L. Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Hay, George, and Loizos Heracleous. ""Bridging the Scholar-Practitioner Divide" Special Issue."
Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 45.2 (2009): 167-169. Print.

The Great Academic-Practitioner Divide: A Tale of Two Paradigms. McNatt, D. Brian; Glassman, Myron; Glassman, Aaron // Global Education Journal 2013.3 (2013): 101.
Pesta, Abigail. "On Pins and Needles: Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 6 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Wasserman, Ilene, and Kathy Kram. "Enacting the Scholar-- Practitioner Role." Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 45.1 (2009): 12-38. Print.