The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’

A few months ago, I described what scholars of the ancient world needed to sacrifice to make the field more inclusive and equitable. One of those things was feeling the need to be an expert in everything.

It’s not easy for any of us to admit when we don’t know the answer to something. Part of this hesitation, I think, stems from the high-pressure, high-stakes structure of our graduate education. 

The Pressures of Grad School

In most graduate programs, we are expected sit comprehensive and language exams (ancient and modern), do coursework, and teach. 

In my program, we sit three comprehensive exams (one in ancient history, one in archaeology, and ‘prelims’) and three-four language exams. All of this must be completed in the first three years on top of a full course load – usually four courses a term, reduced to three when we teach.

So, a typical pre-candidacy term for us goes something like this (for now – there are some major changes on the horizon):

  1. Sitting 1-2 language exams
  2. Taking 3-4 courses with varying levels of commitment and types of assessment
  3. Teaching in some capacity (usually leading sections, but sometimes only grading)
  4. Preparing for a comprehensive exam

Some might praise us for our ability to do all of this. The reality is that this level of expectation is unrealistic and harmful. It grinds us down, and exacerbates our stress and anxiety, especially when faced with the possibility of failure and the consequences of it.

No one wants to fail, but when we have so many balls in the air, it’s inevitable that one or two are going to drop.

A brief analogy

If you’re a super-fan of Survivor, like me, you may be reminded of the iconic challenge Simmotion

In the challenge, each castaway, with one hand tied behind their back, drops a ball into a spiraling metal chute. The ball will exit out of one of two points, and the player must catch the ball and deposit it back into the chute at the top. Additional balls are added at designated intervals. If they drop the ball (in this case literally), the player is eliminated.

(Grad school programs usually aren’t this brutal, but can you imagine??)

All of this teaches us that ‘not knowing,’ not being able to perform, is not an option if we want to succeed. (Ironic, considering how many things we’re expected to know without being taught them…) This is particularly the case for those of us (read: most of us) who must teach courses that stretch us beyond our areas of expertise.

However, one colleague reminded me that one of the most powerful phrases we have in our arsenal is “I don’t know.”

It’s okay to not be an expert in everything and, frankly, it’s unnecessary. We’re only human, and only capable of cramming so much into our heads. 

Part of being a human being is knowing how and when to admit you don’t have all the answers, and working with others to find them.

Admitting when you don’t know the answer

There are loads of situations in academia where you might not have all of the answers that your audience seeks. 

Invited talks, conference presentations, and teaching are perhaps the most common. No matter the format or venue, however, a key part of the process of admitting you don’t know the answer(s) is following up.

For an invited talk or conference presentation, it’s usually not possible to follow up directly with audience members. 

One way to approach these questions is as an opportunity for you to learn. A simple “I hadn’t heard of/seen that, but I will look into it” can go a long way. Just make sure you have pen and paper handy so you can take notes! 

Another situation where it might be easy to say “I don’t know” and move on is in the classroom. 

This can happen either intentionally (“We don’t have time to talk about that!”) or unintentionally (“I forgot so-and-so asked about this!!”). When students ask questions you don’t have the answers to, it’s important to be intentional about returning to their questions at a later time.

The consequences of unanswered student questions

Leaving student questions unanswered can lead to at least two things. 

On the one hand, you might lose their trust and weaken the student-teacher relationship that you work so hard to build over the course of term. This is especially true if you frequently encourage them to ask questions – they may come to believe that it’s not worth the effort. Not answering their questions may also lead to future hesitation to ask them. 

As Therese Huston says, “Students want to believe in their instructors…[They] know that some instructors are better than others, but they want all their professors to inspire their trust and their confidence.”

On the other hand, students might turn to Google and internalize misconceptions about the topic if left unclarified or unchallenged. This is very dangerous at a time when misinformation about the ancient world and the field of Classics is abundant

If this happens and you catch it, be sure to address those misconceptions.

Finding (and conveying) the answers

Here are some ways that you can follow up with questions that you don’t know the answer to when you’re teaching. 

The approach(es) you choose will depend on your comfort level (Introverted? Me too!) and the amount of time you’re willing to commit to research and preparation. The bottom line, however, is that a good response to a student question is one that shows that you’ve taken the time to think about it.

  1. Email
  2. LMS announcement
  3. Setting aside time in the following class period
  4. Scheduling a future class session with a guest speaker who knows more about the topic

The first two approaches – sending an email or an announcement through your course’s website – are the most indirect and require the lowest time commitment. 

You’ll still need to do some research on the subject, which can be anything from just checking a reference to compiling a list of resources for your students to check out themselves. However, you won’t sacrifice any time in the classroom.

The other two approaches require more logistical planning, and may seem less appealing to those instructors who view their syllabi as rigid or set in stone. The truth is that they don’t have to be! 

If the topic is important enough to you – or, better yet, if your students seem particularly interested in it – it’s worth moving some things around to dedicate more time to discussing it.

I imagine that inviting a guest speaker involves a lot more advanced planning, but a potentially useful alternative could involve simply incorporating a blog post, video, or podcast episode into your lesson plan. 

Doing this achieves the same goal as inviting a guest speaker – someone who knows more than you on a given topic speaks about it. The only downside is that students won’t be able to engage in conversation with or ask questions of the speaker directly. 

This might be a good opportunity to have students discuss amongst themselves and think critically about what they’ve learned.

Why it matters

In a time when calls for more diverse, inclusive, and equitable curricula, departments, and institutions are almost constant, we all feel pressured to incorporate things far outside of our comfort zones into our pedagogy and our research. This can be both stressful and time-consuming.

But no one’s asking anyone to become an expert in anti-racist pedagogy (for example) overnight.

Unlearning past behaviors and learning more equitable approaches are processes that take time. In the meantime, however, it’s okay to admit that you don’t have all of the answers and ask for help. 

There are lots of people out there who have been doing this work for a long time that I’m sure would be happy to collaborate with you. If there’s no one in your network who fits the bill, it’s time to start expanding.

Leave a Reply