Expert? Or just opinionated?

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I have a friend who has been teaching and training for more than twenty years. He has a website where he’s a prolific writer on his area, is a frequent participant in online forums and debates, and is considered a valuable resource by his client list, which includes national organizations and various police/military personnel. We are both involved in the SlutWalk movement and he’s been instrumental in helping me understand social attitudes around rape culture, victim-blaming, self defence and the legal system. His influence has resulted in papers I’ve written, media interviews I’ve done around SlutWalk and my doctoral application research proposals.

Much of my knowledge comes from the Academy, whereas his experience is more of a balance between the theoretical and practical. However, because of graduate school, while trusting his knowledge implicitly, I occasionally find myself demanding him to “cite your source!” mid-conversation. And often he provides me with Stats Canada reports and media articles and a variety of other resources to reference. But in other instances, his knowledge comes from his own experience and observations, which is where I struggle.

I am so accustomed to having journal articles and textbooks and media sources to refer to, that for some reason, I am shaken when asked to simply trust that his knowledge is valid without having a piece of paper waved in my face as proof. Am I (once again) an academic snob? Because he doesn’t have a Ph.D. and spend his days within the hallowed hallways of a University, do I think his information is somehow less valid?

Perhaps not. I understand that there are different types of training and credentials in the world. If I want to learn to dance, I will see a dance instructor that most likely has not earned a Doctorate, nor has necessarily written articles about her art. If I want to know about what it’s like to be an Eastern European spy, I will consult with a spy; regardless of whether she has ever taught in a post-secondary institution (which suddenly sounds like a fascinating conversation; if anyone knows any spies, please send them my way).

But so many conversations with this friend have made me question just what it means to be an “expert” in one’s field. How many years of practical experience? What kind of training? Since it cannot merely equate to hours in the library or publishing a particular number of journal articles, how can it be quantified? Am I an expert on SlutWalk because I’ve organized two, going-on-three marches, written papers and presented on it? It seems to me, I would be one of several people who can claim those credentials. How many experts can there be in the world before the word is diminished?

My University’s website has a list of “experts” available for media consultation. My former boss would be on the phone constantly if any kind of sexual abuse issue cropped up in the sport world. Does that make her an expert? Or does she just have an interesting opinion? Where’s the line between expertise, informed opinion and interested party?

My friend has been teaching and training for most of his life, and his critical analysis skills are phenomenal. He has taught me more about breaking down cultural biases and questioning belief structures than my MA ever did. His particular combination of training, experience, and skills would indeed qualify him as an expert in my mind. But who makes that appraisal? It suddenly strikes me as much more of a subjective label than I would have previously thought. Would academics not trust him because of his lack of dissertation? Are letters after a name the only trustworthy identifier? I am reminded of witness testimony in court. Iis the job of the other side not to pick apart the credibility of the expert? Are there not a myriad of charlatans and frauds in the world?

So based on this discussion, the conclusion I am forced to come to is perhaps this: expertise is an evolving title. One has to earn it, but one also has to continue learning in order to maintain it. Anyone who claims to have a complete understanding of any subject area must be suspect. It seems to me that a true expert recognizes that their knowledge must always be limited and there is always room for growth.

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