What to do when you don’t know the answer

Ok, the academic year has finally started and many of you are Teaching Assistants for the very first time of your life! Congratulations, to be a T.A. at UofT is already an achievement. I know that most of you are a bit nervous about this new enterprise, and one of the worries you may have could be: “What if I am asked something in class and I don’t have an answer?” Ok, as usual: don’t panic! This situation is likely to happen even when you are a very experienced Professor, and it’s fine. You just need to be honest (i.e. do not pretend that you know something you don’t know; don’t make up an answer just for the sake of avoiding the admission of ignorance) and learn how to say “I don’t know” in a professional way.

Since in our fields we are all “well informed people” but not “experts” (Boyer, 1990), nobody will have a bad opinion of you if you don’t know something: nobody knows everything! Certainly, when we have no clue about a potential question, we still know very well where to find the answer, and this is precisely what you should tell to your class. A phrase like “I don’t have this answer, but I know where to look for it, so let me take a note and I’ll bring the answer to our next class” is a nice way to put it. Just remember to actually go back to the issue whenever you have completed your research!

If you want to know more, the TATP/CTSI is leading a workshop “What Do I Do If I Don’t Know the Answer?” on October 14th. Or contact the TATP if you would like to speak to someone in person. We can tell you more, if you like.