Many of my non-faculty colleagues are baffled by faculty. I try to demystify faculty at every opportunity, using my own experience as a case study. I often tell people that my Ph.D. advisor made it very clear to me that he would not sign off on my dissertation (meaning I could not leave graduate school gulag) until I had proven to him that I was the world’s foremost expert in the particular topic I chose to pursue in my Ph.D. studies (managing projects in dynamic markets if you’re remotely interested). He made it further clear that he didn’t care how obscure that topic was or for how long I would be the world’s expert in that subject (Hell, five minutes? That’s fine). However, in order to prove you are the expert, you learn to defend your assertions pretty well. When you have a committee of people who are, collectively and individually, more intelligent that you likely are, you need to build a solid case. Once they sign off on your expertise, you feel pretty invincible. I know I did. I liked being an expert and this feeling followed me well into the time I became faculty. However, I felt emboldened to stretch my expertise way beyond its boundaries into fields that extended well beyond the depths of my capabilities. I also happen to be married to someone with an expert-level ability to debate, so we would oftentimes argue topics that neither of us were particularly qualified to defend. At one point, I believe we were arguing passionately about the pros and cons of particular electronic devices when we looked at each other and admitted that neither of us had any clue as to what we were debating. It was equally comical and liberating. For the first time in a long time, I went against my training and just admitted “I don’t know.” It felt good.
Over the years, I have become more comfortable saying “I don’t know.” It’s an empowering vulnerability because most people willing to say “I don’t know” are hinting that they are willing to learn. It is far from my default position even though I have become very comfortable with the fact that my sphere of knowledge is incredibly tiny. I still have the incredible urge to rebut people when they challenge me on something that I feel I clearly know better than they do, particularly when it is with regards to a subject for which I have a pretty good command (I really enjoy when someone tells me how to do my job…). However, I try every day to become even more comfortable saying “I don’t know” while opening myself up to someone throwing some knowledge my way. But it’s not easy. Four years of Ph.D. work made admitting a lack of knowledge difficult. I suspect many other faculty face the same challenges. However, I have come to believe that the best way to learn is to freely admit when you drop your guard and admit that you lack knowledge and learn to listen. Learning to listen is where I’m focusing my next round of self-improvement. If I argue with you, feel free to call me out when I have overstepped.