NCEA - Catholic Distance Learning Network

An introduction to disciplinary expertise



Many graduate students, seminary students included, enter their studies with limited understanding of both the content and the inner working of the disciplines they are studying.  This, in essence, makes them outsiders, as they struggle to learn about subject matter but lack both knowledge and expertise to participate within the disciplines.  Yet such participation is crucial, both for their attainment of expertise and for their vocations after graduation.

The argument of the textbook, Teaching Research Processes, is that development of student research ability enables participation in a discipline.  This participation requires that students understand how disciplines work, that is, that students grasp the nature of disciplines as both content and process.  This can be attained when professors focus as much on the process of their discipline as on the content, inviting their students to work with the information base of each discipline through guided study and written projects characterized by disciplinary research.

Week 1 deals with the concept of “disciplinary expertise,” (something which professors possess and students need).  The main content is summarized in the article, “Student Theological Research as an Invitation,” (see reading list above) so it will not be repeated in detail here.

At the base of disciplinary expertise is epistemology – the informational foundation upon which the discipline is based (where it comes from, why it is valued, what is accepted and what is rejected). The next element is metanarrative, the belief system about the nature of the discipline, its rationale and its work.  Metanarrative determines the worldview of practitioners in the discipline.  Following this comes method, including problem statement development, acceptable patterns of discourse and argumentation, use of sources and evidence, patterns of decision making and conclusions, and so on. This view of disciplines sees them as dynamic and developing, using research as the basis for “doing” the discipline. 


We might view such thinking as typical prolegomenon which would be covered in an introduction to theology or philosophy or biblical studies, but the approach I am suggesting pays much closer attention to the nature of sources and the methods of carrying out the discipline than is often the case in prolegomenon studies.  Students are invited to become insiders rather than spectators. 

Questions to ask:

Begin thinking of the discipline in which you work/teach in terms of its informational foundation. 

  1. What kinds of information resources make up the most prized content within your discipline?  Here we are thinking less of the obvious answer of “books and journals;” rather, we are considering how the tradition in your discipline has developed over time.  What has been valued as foundational?  What developments have brought about the rich body of disciplinary resources you currently have available?
  2. What is the metanarrative of your discipline (the set of abiding convictions about how your discipline works)?  This might be seen as an expression of why your discipline is important, but it needs to go beyond that into the territory of what you see as the most significant academic values of those who do your discipline.
  3. What is the methodology of your discipline?  That is, what are the normal means by which research is done, discussions and debates are carried out, and so on?  Here, avoid the superficial and really look at the dominant elements that together make what your discipline calls its “method.”  What are some alternative voices within the discipline when it comes to methodology?


  1. Prepare an outline of steps you might take to help your students understand the elements of the information base of your discipline.  Indicate whether or not you believe it is possible and/or necessary to substitute teaching of epistemology, metanarrative and method for some content dissemination.

Last Updated February 15, 2018.  © Catholic Distance Learning Network.
"I'd always suspected that we were just teaching our students about our disciplines without ever inviting them to take ownership over them, but I always made a subconscious kind of excuse for my own complicity in that. This course in teaching research design calls all faculty to a higher standard on engaging students in how to enter into our disciplines." - Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, OP, Coordinator of the Catholic Distance Learning Network