Dispelling the notion that professors have to know everything.

The Myth of the Infallible Professor

by Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

For most of us who are not natural born teachers, teaching can be a terrifying prospect for the new faculty member. When I started as an assistant professor at Purdue in 2008, I had already developed and taught my own small course as a Ph.D. student (at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden), but I was still mortified at the idea of facing a class three times a week for fifteen weeks to teach them all about computer graphics (which was the topic of my first course assignment). In retrospect, I have come to realize that my biggest fear actually was a variant of the impostor syndrome: thinking that I needed to be infallible and worrying about not knowing all I needed to know about the topic, and being called out by my students for not knowing.

Ever since grade school, we’ve gotten used to the notion that the teacher knows everything, and this is probably true for the first few years of school. However, at some point, this changes, and by the time you reach university most students realize that the world is a pretty complex place and no single person can be expected to know it all. While a professor teaching a course can be expected to be familiar with the material fairly well in order to teach it, I think most students know that it is easy to ask questions that can stump even the most knowledgeable professors.

Of course, in my personal experience, all that goes out the window when you become the professor yourself, and your mind reverts to the myth of an all-knowing, infallible professor who can rapidly and confidently answer any question students may throw at them. This is, of course, an impossible challenge, and contributed to massive amounts of stress for me early in my teaching career.

Until, that is, I figured out that this myth of the infallible professor is not something that most students ascribe to, and the best answer when you don’t know the answer is simply “I don’t know.” Yes, even if you’re the professor teaching the course. In fact, it could even be argued that admitting that you don’t know something and then trying to find the answer is a potential teachable moment that is more beneficial than just giving the answer because it mimics what often happens in the real world when you yourself don’t know the answer to a specific question.

It turns out that university education is much more about learning how to think and how to learn, and less about the actual knowledge and skills that you acquire along the way (at least for most non-practical degrees). Seeing your professor freely admit that they don’t know the answer to a question is a valuable lesson in itself, and if this followed by the professor proceeding to use available resources to find the answer, then this teaches students just that: how to think and how to learn, not just the raw knowledge.

I did survive my first computer graphics back at Purdue, of course, and I have survived teaching plenty of classes since then (never computer graphics again, however). Along the way, I’ve fielded some tricky questions that I wasn’t able to answer fully—including how to derive the 3D rotational matrices, damn them!—but this became a lot easier and less stressful when I learned the three magic words: “I don’t know.” In fact, now I almost get excited about such questions because they present an opportunity to learn something new together with my students.