Listening and the Limits of Expertise

Information on our Summer 2020 internships to come soon. You can review Summer 2019 internship details here.   

For as much as I have sought out stories of individuals’ flood experiences over the past two months, those stories more often than not turn into stories of community and collaborative response. During my time as an Obermann Public Scholar this summer, I have had the opportunity to engage with Vinton, Iowa and its people in a wide array of contexts: door-to-door canvassing in flood-affected neighborhoods, arranged interviews, telephone chats, facilitated group conversations, and flood resilience games. Through it all I’ve realized I have learned but a sliver of the town’s history and workings. I will never be an expert on Vinton and its flooding—not in the ways its residents are through their lived experiences. Yet I’m learning that this is not a failure of expertise. Rather, this is a recognition of the limits of any expertise.

While we often rely on experts to tell—to recommend, advise, instruct—on countless issues of critical importance, I have begun to wonder what an expert listener might look like. Any expert listens, of course. Being an expert necessitates listening to what is going on in one’s field. Yet the individuals listened-to are typically (at least in my field of English) other experts academically trained in the field. Working with the resident experts of Vinton this summer gave me the chance to get a glimpse at what a collaborative expertise might entail. Between city officials, the teams at the Iowa Flood Center and Iowa Watershed Approach, myself and Jessica Rilling of Iowa Valley RC&D, and the community members themselves, the category of “expert” shifted with each situation and engagement. Including local knowledge and experience among our collective expertise as we address issues of flooding at the city, county, and watershed levels is fundamental to these initiatives as they inevitably affect those local experts in one way or another.

One expert living just outside of Vinton city limits shared with me her method of keeping her cattle safe during the historic 2008 flood. The cattle stayed on her front deck for almost a week.

As my Humanities for the Public Good internship with Iowa Valley RC&D comes to a close, I hope to carry forward ways of engaging with and listening to experts (however unlikely in a traditional sense) rooted in their communities, and able to provide insights we otherwise might miss. I find it hard to articulate just what that might look like at the moment, but I plan to keep my ears open.