Show Your Work: How Do You Know What You Know?

Show Your Work: How Do You Know What You Know?

July 17, 2018 2 Comments

As I work my way through grad school, I become more convinced that surviving and thriving in a PhD program is dependent on whether or not you internalized everything you learned in kindergarten and elementary school. Have the basic lessons taught to you at 5, 7, and 10 years old become second (environmentally programed) nature? Do you instinctively put these lessons into practice without realizing what you’re doing or why you’re doing it? No, I’m not suggesting that our teachers have brain washed us to be shiny cogs in the capitalist machine. What I am actually saying is that as I’ve been attempting to research, write, and revise my dissertation, small instructions from early education have become increasingly important.

For example: showing my work.

I’m sure that math instruction has changed in the 20+ years that I’ve been out of elementary school, but when I was learning the basics, my teachers emphasized that I needed to show my work. I needed to demonstrate how I knew the answer. What concepts enabled me to understand what the question was asking? What steps did I take to reach this conclusion? Could I show an outsider how I arrived at this answer? I’m not mathematically inclined, so 50% of the time, the answer was “No, I cannot show you how I arrived at this answer. I just know this is the right answer.”

In both Mathematics and English, it is unacceptable to say to your reader, “Just trust me on this one, ok? It’ll be fine.”

Having that expectation of my reader, though the expectation is implied and not explicit, makes me sound like a snake oil salesman or like I haven’t spent the last year of my life reading and learning and trying to become knowledgeable on my topic.

Whether I’m writing a paragraph or a page, I have to show my work. I have to discuss the concepts that prompted me to develop the questions that guided my research. I have to show that reader how I arrived at my answers. I have to explain to my reader the steps that I took to reach my conclusion.

I realized that my inability to do this comes from a place of insecurity. I have spent the last year of my life reading and learning and trying to become knowledgeable in my topic, but I still don’t believe that I know anything that someone else might want to know.

Consequently, I keep my reader at arm’s length. Writing is a conversation, so not showing my work is akin to me hurrying through the chat and running away before the other person can respond. It’s a way of remaining unknown, and remaining unknown keeps me from having to face my imposter’s syndrome, that feeling that I’m still playing the academic.

For example, during a meeting on entering the academic job market, one of my professors said to the group, “As you’re working on your CVs and cover letters, just remember that you’re employable.”

Internally, I said, “Ha! Adorable.”

My therapist and I are working on this. For me, showing my work means that I think of myself as a scholar, and I can’t say that I’ve hit that point yet. In my head, I’m wearing the clothes, glasses, and tired expression of a grad student in an effort to inhabit the role, but I’m not actually a PhD candidate.

Yet, as my therapist has pointed out, the fact that I’m writing a dissertation proves that I’m not a fraud or imposter. I know things, and it’s ok to show that I know things. During our conversation, my reader isn’t going to “find me out.” I’m not playing pretend. This isn’t a performance.

Being able to show your work while writing involves feeling confident in the skills that have enabled you to complete your project, knowing that your writing is  solid, and being sure that you’re making a contribution to your field, to someone’s reading life, or even to your own life.

Writers, our readers aren’t going to find us out. We’re not playing pretend. Our writing isn’t a performance. We’re simply in conversation with our readers, and we’re showing them how we know what we know at this point in time.

I haven’t quite let go of my insecurity, but I’m making progress when it comes to responding to my reader instead of running away. I’m learning how to say, “Here are the steps I took to reach this conclusion” and “If you can spare me some time, I can explain to you how I arrived at this answer.” I’m learning how to slow down and offer space for the reader on my journey and space for myself on this journey, too.





Gyasi S. Byng lives in Rochester, New York. She is PhD student at the University of Rochester where she teaches a writing course on robotics and human identity. She received her MA from Florida Atlantic University and her BA from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Her recent publications include “I Have Never Been Strong” in Open Minds Quarterly, “In the Waiting Line” in Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, and “Beige Girl Problems” in Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks.


Next up, Being Ready: The Myth of the Muse



Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

2 Responses

Madeline Twooney
Madeline Twooney

July 23, 2018

Gyasi, as a writer, your article really resonated with me. Thank you for sharing with us!

Zenique Gardner Perry
Zenique Gardner Perry

July 20, 2018

Thank you for this—at a time when I’ve finished a piece after a long time of not writing and now, considering when and who, if ever, to submit! The imposter syndrome is very real.

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