Tag Archives: PhD

Imposteur! …and the professorial Godthing

That’s right. Impostor.  Or maybe hack is the word.  They’re going to figure out soon that I don’t know anything!

I think it is more than safe to say every graduate student routinely believes that she or he is substandard, dumb, not capable. Why? Well, personally, I think there are a multitude of reasons. Chief among them, if we’ve ended up on the academic roller coaster, we read a lot, we put our professors on pedestals, we recognize how many smart people we speak with often.

Further, and here is where the Wiki god shed some light on the issue:

Impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments.

Well, I think we’ve just described every graduate student, ever. Are there impostors out there? Sure. Though, usually, I think, academic departments have these needling ways of wheedling out those who don’t belong – like discussion, paper writing, comprehensive examinations, oral examinations, proposals, dissertations.

We spend hours upon hours pouring over books, writing, reflecting, teaching. It’s all going somewhere. Do our professors know more than we do? Duh.

Are there people who know more than we do? Usually!

Do these two premises mean that the conclusion is we know nothing? Hardly!  We may not be senior scholars, but we also haven’t been professional scholars for 20 years yet. We cannot possibly know everything that they know — yet.  At the end of the day, Grad School Ninja sums it up appropriately:

What to do about imposter syndrome? Know that everyone is going through it and that, as such, many of your fellow students (and even some faculty) may go around puffed up like a peacock using words like “hermeneutics” and other jargon, or pretending that they have photographic memories, or that they never procrastinate, or whatever. Recognize those signs when you see them and try to have a bit of empathy for those nervously puffed up people. And take a deep breath and just keep going.

This doesn’t mean we should have egos bigger than our accomplishments – but it also doesn’t mean we should self-deprecate or self-negate. Recognize what you know.  Understand that there will always be things you don’t know. Isn’t that the irony of the “life of the mind?”  The more we learn, the more we see what there is to be learned.

The side note is about Professor-as-Godthing syndrome that we seem to cling to. Paired with this is often a slew of unhealthy projection. Our professors are human beings with lives — the majority of said lives do not involve us in any way. We have this unfortunate habit of projecting all of our insecurities and fears onto our professors, advisors, and role models.

I know, with only a few notable exceptions on rare occasion, that I do not go home and obsess over my students’ work, writings, projects.  I go home and do my own work, watch TV, visit with friends, meow back and forth with my cat, take walks &c.   Why on earth would we assume that our professors are doing something different?

Take a cue from the pros whom we fear are suspicious of us.  Just do your work and remember to recognize the work that you’re doing.  This was tested just recently.  I spoke with someone connected to my own field of research but not fully versed in what I do specifically; an academic in my field but not my specific area. You know what the conversation revealed? I knew what I was talking about and it didn’t involve grand standing or faking.

So! Feel like an impostor? Well, if you obsess over what you don’t know to the point of not furthering what you do know, then you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erm..Dr. X, if you’re reading my blog and keeping a balance sheet of every aspect of my life as I fear, I promise that amorphous chunk of writing I mumbled about when I rushed past you in the hall is coming!

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Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.


Insufficient comedy, low test score.

Or, sometimes we just need to whine.

Please note: there is nothing enlightened here. Well, perhaps there are a few worthy ideas. In the main, this is what I have opted for instead of reaching for the tequila.  

That’s right, the hell-bent race track to final grade submission. And so, not even a quarter of the way through the 900 + pages of final grading that I have on my desk. My spirits are dipping lower and lower.

I have just pre-heard the collective groan, just by mentioning the dirty “G” word. We’re all in this moment right now, or soon will be, or have just finished it.

Why? Accountability. I’ve heard a lot of

__________________________

The rest of the post has been redacted. The poster took a walk, bought some junk food, got over his it’s-humid-and-I-hate-grading woes, and generally saw la vie en rose.  

 


And merrily did he…

… wrap up the semester at Private University with an out of class-time scheduled final review for four sections.  Public University ends classes in two weeks. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.  Not looking forward to the five (total) sections of finals I will be grading here in a week or so. But, I am thrilled for the end of the month. Uninterrupted reading, research, maybe a jaunt out of Big, Overbearing City for a while.

Interesting new reading on my primary author that delivers the rare gift of unique, cogent and lucid observations.  Every time I really hunker down into a new piece of scholarship that fascinates me, I am disappointed that I can only ever read for so long before other responsibilities force me to set the book down.  Any time I really engage my research I want to crawl into my cozy research hole and disavow the rest of the world. Given my continued enthusiasm for reading, writing and learning (I scoff at you, burn out!), I think my project would move much, much faster if I could really give into it and clear my plate of  the teaching. I’d miss my students terribly, though. They have a way of keeping me closer to the ground, less cerebral in my daily life and of much better humor (not to mention keeping my social skills honed).

When it all gets to be too much, the teaching, the keeping up with the research, I usually develop a temporary obsession as a pressure bleed off in my down time.  The current obsession takes the form of documentaries (NOVA, things on physics, space) and I’m working through Hanks’s From the Earth to the Moon.  Current Public Transit travel reading: Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.  

What does everyone else do to bleed off the pressure when their minds just shut down?