Things I Don’t Know

I often talk about the importance of admitting what I don’t know.  Most of the time, that relates to the classroom environment.  I talk about how students can tell when we are faking knowledge, though it sometimes takes them some time to do so, and how that undercuts their faith in us.  Over time, if we are unwilling to admit our ignorance, we will develop a reputation as someone who is more concerned about how they appear to students than actually teaching well.

We are often ignorant of things outside of class, as well, and we need to be equally willing to admit it in those situations, as not owning our not knowing can also cause trouble there.  For example, this past week, I received an email from a student in an introductory course, and she wanted to get an incomplete for the course.  She was also withdrawing from the university.  I had never heard of such a situation (even after thirteen years here), and I didn’t know how to handle it.

Part of me wanted to go ahead and respond to the student, as it was clear she needed an answer quickly, given the date for withdrawing from the university was just a few days away.  Instead, though, I forwarded the email on to my department chair and asked for her input.  She told me that the situation didn’t make sense, and she told me who to call the next morning.  I did, and we cleared everything up, and now the student has all the information she needs to make the best decision for her.

Admitting our ignorance helps even more when it comes to advising.  Even though I have been advising students here for the past thirteen years and have won our award for excellence in advising (sorry for the horn tooting, but this fact will just further show my point, I hope), I call or email someone for help with a question about once every two to three weeks during our advising time.  Sometimes, it’s a question about where a certain class can count or not; sometimes, it’s where they go to change something or to get something corrected; sometimes, it’s a problem I’ve never hit and couldn’t even imagine.

This willingness to call or email people to clear up problems comes from the fact that I have seen mistakes made that truly affected students or I have made those mistakes myself.  The one that I will always remember came about eight years ago when a professor advised a student incorrectly, and it affected one of my classes.  The student needed to take a writing practicum to earn a minor, and the professor told her that our literary magazine would count.  When the student discovered that it wouldn’t, she had to find something else during her final semester.

I was teaching an American Novel course for the first time that semester, and she had planned on taking it.  It was a small class, and it was one of the strongest I had ever taught.  She was one of the strongest students in her group (and, still, one of the strongest I’ve ever taught), so I was looking forward to having her in the class.  Because of the incorrect advising she received, though, she was unable to take it.

Granted, this didn’t keep her from graduating, but it could have, and the problem could have been cleared up if the advisor asked one simple question instead of guessing.  Such questions come up every semester for most of us as advisors, and the solution is simple.  Asking these questions would make everyone–students, those in charge of academic advising, our chairs–much happier, as it is easier to take care of a problem on the front end, then to try to fix it after it has happened.  So, pick up the phone or send an email.  It doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and it can help so many people.


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