Impostor Syndrome Lives

A provost asked me if professional writing students actually get jobs. When I paused to consider how to best answer her question, she asked, “Don’t you know the answer?”

This weekend a student asked me if I like her research question and I thought, “Why are you asking me?” 

When I encouraged a student to rethink her approach, she later told me that she thought she wasn’t a good enough researcher and writer. 

A colleague asked me to recommend a theorist, I thought “They don’t respect me as a scholar” when I couldn’t namedrop fast enough.

I asked a student how she was doing. She responded, “I’m not very smart. I’m not sure I belong here.” 

A colleague asked me under her breath, “Will I ever feel good enough?” 

I once thought that I would get my PhD become Dr. Lukowski and believe in myself. However, two years later I can confidently say that I still feel like an impostor. Every time I’m observed teaching, present a conference paper, or submit am abstract I am sure that this will be the moment the they find out.

What am I afraid the spectral they will discover? That I’m a fraud. That I don’t deserve my degrees. And, that I have no business being in academe.

Of course, my rational mind knows that this is ridiculous, but the fears remain. Psychologists Clance and Imes (1978) coined the term “impostor syndrome” while describing high-achieving people who can’t accept their accomplishments fear being exposed as frauds. While Clance and Imes’s study focused on young college women, over the years we’ve discovered that many high-achievers complain of never feeling adequate. Business publications like Forbes and the Harvard Business Review post stories about over coming the syndrome by “re-framing failure” or “seeking support.”

However, for women in the workplace and the academy, failure and seeking support can have more consequences for our careers. So, while women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, seeking support may not be an option. Women still face persistent sexism in academia; this Guardian story noted that while 66% of men have tenure, only 42% of women do. Moreover, several studies have shown that women are more likely to experience poverty and job loss. In other words, women have more reasons to be afraid and feel like frauds.

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jorge cham from Piled Higher & Deeper

As I think about all of the women I quoted above, I wonder when we will feel good enough. How many awards, accolades, atta-girls, or great classes will it take? Or, is impostor syndrome part of our success? I sometime feel like my drive to do my best comes from my desire to prove them wrong. That, when the time comes, I’ll prove worthy because I’ve done enough.

Then again, maybe they‘re right.

Reflections on the New School Year

Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I packed my mother’s Subaru Forester with everything I would need for my first year at college. My future roommate and I had corresponded all summer and agreed that in addition to clothes, bedding, and school supplies, I would bring the mini-fridge and CD boombox and she would bring the microwave, fishtank, and blacklight. After all, a dorm room just isn’t a dorm room without a black light. So, with a car packed to the gills, my mom backed the car down our gravel drive as my father and brother waved good bye, dogs circling their legs and barking. 

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My mom, me, and my grandmother – 20 years ago

We sped through two lane highways that twisted and turned through treed hills and the iron-packed rocks of the Upper Peninsula, always moving south.When we finally reached Lake Michigan, we fell into blinding sunny beaches where the lake shimmered and the low sandy dunes pushed back against the waves. We crested a steep hill and the Mackinac Bridge stood before us; 500 foot tall ivory columns rising out the water. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles sped across the five mile long span where lakes Michigan and Huron met.

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The Mackinac Bridge

Halfway across the bridge, nearly 200 feet above the water, my mother reached over, squeezed my knee and said, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.” Cheekily, I looked over my shoulder, laughed and waved, “Goodbye to the UP Gator!” Of course, now I know what my mom already knew – I would never really return to the backwood and backwards place that was my home. Sure, I would visit. I came home in the summer to swim in clean lakes and walk in the dark woods. I came home for Christmas to get snowed in for days and ski to the store for fresh milk. And years later, I came home to say goodbye to my mother and celebrate her life after she succumbed to cancer. Even then, I never really returned. I was a different person from that 17 year old girl.

So, two years ago, almost to the day, I drove my little Ford Focus, packed to the gills, through Arkansas on my way to my first real job after graduate school. I crested a low hill and saw the impossibly long and wide Mississippi River spanned by the two silvery white arcs Hernando de Soto Bridge. Instead of trees and dunes, the buildings that made Memphis’s skyline rose up from the shores of the river. I sighed with relief because I was nearly to my new home. And, as I crossed the bridge, I could almost hear my mom whisper in my ear, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.”

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De Soto Bridge

Next week, we’re going to meet over 300 young people who’ve crossed bridges – both real and figurative to get here. They may struggle with the demands of college. They may be crossing a bridge to a new life with a trailer full of baggage behind them. However, we have the unique privilege to greet them when they arrive and help them make new lives for themselves.

Long-Distance Collaborative Writing

I’m currently working three different writing projects with people across the country. I’m collaborative-writingcurrently sitting in a coffeeshop using Facebook instant messenger to discuss an abstract with a collaborator.  In twenty minutes, I’m using Google Hangouts to video conference with two other collaborators about a paper we’re giving in May. And, I’m direct messaging on Twitter with another collaborator about a panel for a conference next year.

Yes, that’s three different methods of social media interaction.

As I navigate this complex web of relationships and work habits, I am reminded that writing is not a solitary activity. This notion is indebted to Lise Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s (1990) Singular Texts/plural Authors. In other words, I always write collaboratively. I always have friends read my drafts and talk through ideas with me. Reciprocally, I do the same for many of my friends, and by doing so, I become a better writer. Moreover, I always imagine an ideal audience and try to anticipate their objections.

So, what changes when I deliberately write with other people?  Well, the digital spaces to share files like Dropbox or Google.docs become essential. Software that allow us to talk in real time become essential because sometimes a thirty minute conversation replaces hours of back and forth emails. Quick check-ins via instant messenger help clear up minor differences of opinion. Social media are essential to contemporary scholarship.

Public/Private Blog

Today’s Atlantic ran a story about University of Marquette professor John McAdams pubprivwho being stripped of tenure because of a story he posted on his blog. While I am unwilling to weigh in on the validity of this decision or the opinions expressed, I think the medium and genre that sparked this debate has ramifications for digital rhetoric.

If we trace the story back to its beginning, we find an ideological conflict between a graduate instructor and an undergraduate student. The student recorded this after class conversation on his phone without the graduate student’s permission. Does the instructor have some expectation of privacy? Would she have spoken differently if she knew about the recording? Does that matter?

I am struck by the power of a tiny portable device; one cell phone can start a controversy that ends with a faculty member losing his job.

But more than that, I am struck by the role of technology and its mediation of public and private spaces. The cell phone, a technology often used for very personal/private conversations, records a public conversation. And, as we discussed in class, the blog is a perfect example of personal made public. Personal opinions and experiences may suddenly gain a very public readership. Examining the subtitle of McAdams’s blog points to this conundrum:

“This site has no official connection with Marquette University. Indeed, when University officials find out about it, they will doubtless want it shut down.”

He carefully notes that the blog is an independent entity. However, he also notes “when” officials discover it, they will be unhappy. By using “when” instead of “if,” McAdams implies that his blog is provocative and will draw ire. Tragically, his subtitle also suggests that the worst punishment may be shutting the blog down. In fact, he could lose his job and his livelihood.

The networked nature of blogging demonstrate that these spheres do not have rigid boundaries. McAdams’s publicized opinions have dire consequences for his private life.

Digital Affordances

On my day off from teaching, I am sitting in a coffee shop revising an article for publication. I’ve got Run the Jewels bumping through my headphones that are effectively blocking out an obnoxious conversation happening at the table next to me. I need to online_classesfocus because I hate revision and I find it so easy to put it off (notice me writing this blog post). Nevertheless, I decided to write because I realized how much technology has afforded me this opportunity.

A year ago in the middle of writing my dissertation, I spoke with one of my mentors about revision. He talked about writing passages by hand and cajoling his girl friend to type the pages for him. Apparently, I made a face because he quickly reassured me that he paid her for her skill – after all, typing on a typewriter was a lot of work. He said she paid her way through college by typing papers; she was fast and accurate. She charged extra for last minute projects.

Despite his reassurances, I was still shocked. Not just because his wife typed his dissertation (all 250 pages), but because I was horrified by the idea of trying to do meaningful revision with out the word-processing power of my laptop. I peppered him with questions:

What if you hated the order of your paragraphs?  What if you disliked a quotation? What if you wanted a new topic sentence? What about transitions? What did your works cited look like? What if you spelled someone’s name wrong? How did you do research? How did you find timely sources?

Of course, people wrote differently than they do today. Many authors composed and revised by hand before sharing their work. In manuscript culture, authors often produced a fair copy of a draft before circulating works among their friends or submitting for publication. Unfortunately for people who study textual production, most our revision is invisible. We revise as we type. Our computers erase our work. Writing in a digital environment hides our effort.