grad school · risky writing · Uncategorized

Guest Post: On Feeling Unsure

Today’s guest post is from Jessica McDonald, who is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. Thanks for writing, Jessica!


Most of the time, in most contexts, I feel unsure.

I’ve noticed this pattern over the past several years — ah, let’s be real: over the course of my entire life. But as I’ve worked my way through the Ph.D., it has become a more prominent, more pressing, and also more interesting pattern to me. Nowadays, I try to chalk it up to a healthy and useful practice of “shakiness” — an attention to nuance over sureness, a belief in shades of grey over the black-or-white.

Feeling unsure delivers some advantages to me. I am frequently greeted with feelings of unsureness when I encounter a text, like a book, or an article shared via Facebook, and those feelings mediate my immediate responses to the text. This is useful: I might more seriously weigh the pros and cons of any given issue, might consider the text’s biases, merits, and gaps. I might not have the, say, surety to know how to respond to a text in the moment. I hesitate. Feeling unsure gives me space and time for reflection.

I have also been lucky to make connections with other people because I am open about being unsure. Long conversations with like-minded, similarly unsure colleagues over the various complicated dimensions of any given event in the news – an event, say, on which others have taken stark and strong stands – can be incredibly meaningful experiences. Unsureness bonds me to others.

And students respond, often times, with a combination of surprise, relief, and healthy relaxation when I model unsureness in the classroom. My unsureness as an instructor means that interactions in the classroom become more honest. A common first-day-of-class icebreaker I facilitate asks students to reveal (after I’ve first revealed myself) something they don’t know but they think they should know, or to admit something they fail at. Teaching a class themed around Literature and Place, I admitted to terrible skills in geography. (Seriously terrible. I still get the arrangement of the Canadian provinces mixed up. It’s that bad.)

But while being a deliberately unsure instructor has produced benefits, there are of course risks and challenges. For example, an obstacle to making unsureness an explicit part of my teaching is that, naturally, students sometimes want sureness in an instructor. Learning is hard; sureness can provide helpful stability in the process of negotiating slippery concepts. And when my being unsure is not perceived as intellectually productive, that can shake down into results that are not always positive. For example, student evaluations—troubling and troubled in so many ways, and hotly contested as they are—more often highlight my approachability or my willingness to listen to many viewpoints, rather than my intellectual skills or capabilities in leading students through course content. I don’t doubt that this is, in part, a consequence of my being a woman who dares to be unsure even as an instructor whose theoretical job is to lead classroom learning.

In the face of an unsure person, too, there are those who capitalize on it: let me tell you how things are, since you appear not to know. In the face of an unsure woman, I’ve found, there are one-hundred-and-one Very Sure Men who will swoop in to let her know what’s what.

When I’ve articulated this feeling in academic contexts, I have been met with mixed reviews. Often, I’m advised by well-meaning and wise friends, colleagues, and mentors to simulate an authority I do not care to assume. Particularly for someone like me who is precariously employed and uncertain about where my future employment will come from, the advice is to exude a kind of sureness that I don’t feel comfortable with on the best of days: five-year research plan? no sweat; recite The Narrative of Canadian Literature off-the-cuff? that’s what I’m here for.

I often wonder what this kind of simulated sureness does to the profession: how does it contribute to our health, or the health of our professional relationships? how are students shaped by Very Sure Instructors? in what ways might our published research be failed by the goal of surety?

Talking about how unsure we are can be terrifying for a host of reasons: the atmosphere of competition that academia fosters, which compels us to put our best foot forward at all times; the material effects that publicly embracing unsureness can produce, especially for those seeking employment or financial stability; the ways that articulating unsureness can further marginalize individuals who already experience powerful intersections of oppression and marginalization, such as disabled, queer, trans, and BIPOC scholars.

There are risks, then, to speaking up. But again, let’s be honest: as a cis white woman, I have unearned privilege which means that being unsure, in public and elsewhere, does not greatly endanger my ability to maintain the institutional, structural, and other benefits I reap even in the face of these disclosures. It is not this easy for others. But as a public, official articulation of my hitherto only casually expressed feelings, this post feels liberating to me. Speaking about unsureness can be a relief. A call to others who might feel the same to talk back, collect, change the script.

And how might that script be changed? I’ve been trying to think through how this unsureness, this thing I once perceived as a self-deficit, can productively and meaningfully guide my research and pedagogy. How can I let it inform my interactions with colleagues, mentors, friends? I wonder about how building this feeling into the very systems and structures we occupy might change them.

For me, foregrounding unsureness in the academy could look something like this: relationships with students and colleagues that are anchored in honesty and in open articulations of the limits of our own understandings; built-in time for unsureness to unfold, or for slow and careful consideration to be practiced, in both research and teaching contexts; the ability for unsureness to shape how we practice self-care (how would we feel if we exchanged the pressures of mastery for the possibilities of uncertainty?) and how we negotiate imposter syndrome or other feelings of deficiency that seem so built into the structures of the academy. For me, too, foregrounding unsureness means respecting, trusting, and even prioritizing the knowledge and experiences of others—being accountable to that knowledge and, as an instructor in particular, releasing myself from the banking model of education (critiqued by Paulo Freire) that purports I have knowledge to give and students are there to receive.

Embracing unsureness as a scholar and teacher has helped me envision these possibilities and, in some small ways, put these visions into practice. I offer them as entry points into a conversation I hope to keep having with anyone who is interested. So, I ask: what would an unsure academy look like to you? What would we give up? What would we gain?


McDonald J picJessica McDonald is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She researches Canadian literature, literary cartography, and postcolonial theories and literatures. When not working, she enjoys making lots of lists and writing poems about crop tops and selfies.

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