The Fear of Publicly Not Knowing

Evan Peck
Evan Peck
Jul 31, 2019 · 7 min read

By the time you’ve completed graduate school, you should probably know more than you used to know and survive at least one existential crisis. For me, it also involved a change in how I understand the value of not knowing…


My 4th year of grad school, Pat Hanrahan visited the VALT lab at Tufts University. Pat is a Stanford professor, graphics pioneer, original employee of Pixar, and co-founder of Tableau (among many other things). Needless to say, his visit was a big deal to us.

In 2014, Matt Pharr, Greg Humphreys, and Pat Hanrahan received Technical Achievement awards for their work on physically based rendering from the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards.

When it was my 10-minute slot to chat with him, I quickly rambled through my recent work involving brain sensing and data visualization. And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t actually remember much of what was said. Instead, I remember the interruptions — the small moments that Pat stopped me to ask questions:

  • What does that term mean? What do you mean by that? Can you explain that again? Can you remind me about the study it was based on?

The questions caught me off guard. Not that there were questions (that was expected), but the nature of them. They were questions about terminology, about references to previous studies, and about technical background.

I couldn’t believe how comfortable he was asking them because they were exactly the kinds of questions I wouldn’t ask. They were the kind of questions I would have assumed that I should already know. Pat Hanrahan — who I assumed had all the answers to everything I could possibly tell him — was publicly not knowing.

On Privately Not Knowing

For most of my academic life, I’ve been terrible at not knowing. I arrived at graduate school from a small CS program at a tiny unknown school. Like many people, I felt the weight of Imposter Syndrome, which meant that 2AM study sessions were accompanied by the same old questions…

Do I belong? Am I prepared? Will they find out?

I rarely went to professors for help or said “I don’t understand ”. More often than not, I worried endlessly about the things I didn’t know, and put the burden on myself to catch up. To me, publicly not knowing wasn’t just “I don’t understand” — it was a public admission of not belonging.

Honestly, this is the probably best case scenario. Often that fretting would paralyze me actually learning the content.

At the time, my approach seemed crafted by good advice: Fake it till you make it. Act like you belong. Be the person you want to be. But was it worth it?

  • It was slow. Instead of asking for a simple clarification, how many hours did I spend searching for explanations of the thing I didn’t know?
  • It was detaching. How many conversations did I miss when I was derailed by an unknown concept? How many ideas did I not fully engage with?
  • It was exhausting. How much energy did I spend thinking about the things I didn’t know? What was the cumulative effect of that anxiety?

When I reflect back at the slow pace of my early work in grad school, I have to wonder if I was sabotaging myself — death by a thousand avoidances.

The Value of Publicly Not Knowing

I learned a lot by attending academic talks in Boston, but I learned a lot more from the behavior of brilliant people who were sitting and chatting in the audience around me. The smartest people I’ve ever met were the quickest to ask questions. It allowed them to…

  • Stay active in the conversation.
  • Make immediate connections back to their own experience.
  • Determine what was worth investing their time in later on.

What I quickly came to realize was that publicly not knowing wasn’t a indicator of stupidity, it was an indicator of understanding. And from what I’ve seen, it is one of the clearest indicators of success in people — more than school prestige, more than GPA.

Seeing Echoes of Myself in My Students

I’m writing this because it’s a story I feel compelled to tell every semester. What I see over and over and over again is that many of my brightest college students simply cannot bring themselves to identify with not knowing.

It’s probably because they, like me, excelled in high school. They got here because of knowing. Everyone else knows, they think. And I’ve got to keep pace with them.

When I push them on this idea, we collectively nod together and agree that getting help is good. We agree that asking how does that work? in my class is good! But for a thousand reasons both seen and unseen, they have already internalized that not knowing is weakness, which makes publicly not knowing horrifying. It’s obvious to me because I was that way too.

But we should all just get over it, right? We should end with an inspirational call to overcome our insecurities and just ask questions, right?…..right?

Not Knowing Isn’t Always Safe

The truth is messier. Not knowing is easier for me now that I’m known. It takes less courage now for me to say “I don’t know” because I have public markers of knowing. I have a Ph.D. and students say “Prof.” before my name. I’ve published papers and even received some awards for my research.

Before all that was associated with my name, I wish I could tell you it was always safe to admit not knowing, and that all the people around me would always protect those moments of vulnerability. But it’s just not true.

We know that some people will exploit our weaknesses and make us feel unworthy of whatever place we’re at — undergrad, grad school, our jobs. I think we perceive not knowing as a threat because sometimes it is a threat.

And the stakes aren’t the same for all of us. The research is pretty clear that that my race and my gender bestow my professor body with more benefit of the doubt than many of my colleagues. My mistakes in the classroom are more likely to be interpreted as just mistakes — not referendums on my intelligence or my ability to teach. That’s not charisma or magic. It’s just ugly biases.

These visualizations by Ben Schmidt show how students use the words “smart” and “unprepared” to describe their profs in teaching evaluations. Because I’m male, I’m more likely to be perceived as smart and less likely to be perceived as unprepared. That makes “not knowing” easier for me.

And while this post started out as a simple idea, there’s a reason why I’ve sat on various drafts for nearly 2 years, not sure what to do. These realities throw poison in that feel-good, chicken-soup-for-the-soul story, don’t they?

Finding People and Crafting Places

Looking back, I wish I had reflected more carefully on the people and spaces in which not knowing was beneficial for me. Yes, there are dangers and some of them are real. But if you’re like me, you can easily magnify and morph your working environment through cynical filters in your mind… staining both people and places in ways they (probably) don’t deserve. Why did it take me so long to see that most colleagues, educators, and advisors are nice?

And in the moments in which trusting my class or my work simply didn’t feel in reach, I wish I had actively worked harder to identify alternative people and find new places in which not knowing was valuable. They were there. I was very fortunate to stumble into some of them.

I say this because I remain convinced that publicly not knowing is valuable. I probe problems and answers more quickly when I really believe it. I form connections with my colleagues more quickly when I buy in… and I can tell you that it leads me down unexpected, delightful paths of discovery.

If you’re a student, you should know that some of my favorite students have always been the ones who are fearless with their questions — no matter how small. You’re at college because it should be a space in which you figure stuff out. And if that isn’t true, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the environment — not you.

So after 2 years, I’m finally releasing this post. Not because I know all the angles… but because I need to take my own advice and internalize that publicly not knowing often sparks more interesting and valuable conversations than burying unperfected ideas.


I am an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Bucknell University, a liberal arts university in central Pennsylvania. You can learn more about me on my website or on Twitter.

Bucknell HCI

Human-Computer Interaction at Bucknell University —a place for course work, demos, research projects, and any other combination of people + tech

Evan Peck

Written by

Evan Peck

Bucknell Computer Science Faculty. Trying to make your computer fit you better. HCI, data visualization. my site: eg.bucknell.edu/~emp017/

Bucknell HCI

Human-Computer Interaction at Bucknell University —a place for course work, demos, research projects, and any other combination of people + tech

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