I Do Not Know

“Dr. Humphrey, I think your calculation is incorrect.” I looked at the formula. I looked at my notes.  I looked at the student who asked the question. I was only covering the price elasticity of demand, in a principles course mind you. Yet, my head was still thick with a cold and he appeared competent and confident in his statement. I took another stab at it. I turned back around for his feedback. Expecting a nod of approval, he shook his head.  I looked back down at my notes. I looked back at the whiteboard. I turned around and looked at the 60 faces staring at me. I was all alone. No one was coming to my rescue. I grasped the notes in my hand a little tighter. I could feel the panic start to rise. I looked at the clock. There were only two minutes left in class. “All right, we will pick this up next week. Have a good weekend” I said with a significant sigh of relief.

It had been a long time since I felt fear in the classroom. Fear was my constant companion when I first started teaching. For the most part, it would result in no more than my over-preparing for a lecture. At other times, the fear could be downright debilitating. It would sometimes sneak up on me in the middle of class. It would start with the self-destructive personal commentary. “You do not know what you are talking about.” “You are not an expert.” And, my favorite, “They think you know what you are talking about, but we know better.” On these occasions, my only escape was to turn to the chalkboard and start writing. With each new comment, “You are a fraud”, I would lean closer and closer into the chalkboard. The struggle to turn back around was a mighty one but I always managed to do it.

Then one of my colleagues referred me to Ed. Ed was a therapist. “The classroom is your domain. It is your space. You own it. Don’t say sorry. You are the master” Ed began our session. “The next time you walk into that classroom” he continued, “you know what I want you to do?” I just stared at him not really sure what to do. “I want you to tell them to *!$% off.”

“What?!” I exclaimed. “Say it! Say it right here” he pushed back. “Say what?” I asked. “Say, *!$% you!” he replied. “Right now?” I asked.  “Yeah, right now!” he shot back. He was now on his feet standing in a room full of teddy bears and positive affirmation posters. I am from the Midwest and I had only experienced scenes like these in the movies.  But, I was willing to give it a shot. I was living in California after all. So, I said “all right…*!$% you” rather meekly. “Noooooo!” he hollered. “Say it like you mean it.” So I did. And, so went my first session with Ed.

Acting on his advice, I developed the following routine for the beginning of each class. I would walk in, take position in the center of the room, stand up straight with hands on my hips, scan the room from one side to the other, and say “Good Morning”.  Well, that is what they would hear. In my head, I was saying “*!$% You. *!$% you all.”

I only saw Ed three more times. I really liked Ed. I needed to feel authoritative. His advice gave me that. It was right for me at that time in my teaching life.  However, it came at a cost.

It added to the distance that already separated me and my students. For me, the lectern, the table at the front of the class, and the computer monitor played the role of a trench on the battlefield.  They physically separated me from my students. I could hide behind them. They kept my students at bay. Held in hand, my lecture notes played a similar role. My diagrams, powerpoint, and the math – if complicated enough and presented at a quickened pace – could keep the questions to a minimum. Plowing ahead and avoiding eye contact could do the same. On those occasions that I got a question and did not know the answer, I could always just turn it back on the student and say “Are you sure?” to raise doubts in them. My teaching, in large part, was designed around fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of feeling ashamed that I did not know the answer.

Today, my best teaching occurs when I do not know the answer. It could be when my students and I are in Honduras and the program we designed is falling apart in the face of reality.  It could be at the shelters during the Two Dollar Challenge when we are exploring our motivations for taking on global poverty. It could be when we are pushing the theoretical framework of New Institutional Economics into territory that neither of us has charted before. In these moments, I have learned to admit that I do not know, embrace the uncertainty and dance with the doubt. I have learned to get out of the way. I have learned to cede intellectual space to my students. Let them own that space. When I do, they always grow to fill it.

As a result, today, my teaching is grounded in collaboration, cooperation and co-creation. Today, my teaching is designed to build community. Today, I have a new routine at the beginning of every class. I still walk in and scan the room from side to side and say “Good Morning”. However, in my head, I am saying …I know this is corny and I can barely get my fingers to type this out but I truly believe that this is where my teaching lives… In my head, I am saying “I love you. I love you all.”


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Thanks. – shawn