This fall semester will mark, if my math is correct, ten years that I’ve been teaching courses of my own design.Â (For one previous year, I taught composition courses from a department-chosen text, hewing closely to model department syllabi, culminating in a department portfolio review.Â It was a great experience, and I learned a lot, especially from Donna, who supervised my TA support section–but it wasn’t my own show.)
A lot’s changed in 10 years: I went from being a doctoral student, to a post-doc, to an assistant professor, to an untenured associate professor, to, finally, being a tenured associate professor.Â I’ve gotten some recognition for my teaching, and have good evaluations.
What hasn’t changed is the gnawing anxiety of imposter syndrome. Â (Wikipedia says that it “is not an officially recognized psychological disorder”–and let’s hope it stays that way!) I still open most student e-mail with a clutch of dread that, finally, I’ve been found out.
Today, for example, a very loyal and devoted student got in touch and asked to meet to discuss a “favor regarding this fall’s cyberpunk class,” in which he’s enrolled.Â By chance, I was on campus and was able to set up a meeting a couple of hours later.Â I spent the ENTIRE two hours speculating about the nature of the favor: “Stop clowning at the front of the class.”Â “Stop passing yourself off as knowledgeable about the internet.”Â “Try delivering actual content for a change, instead of focusing on teaching methods for reading and writing.”Â Seriously.Â Two hours of this, in preparation for a meeting with a student who’s taken ~12 credit hours with me already, and even written a testimonial for the local teaching award.
What was the actual favor?Â Special pleading for a fellow student, a cyberpunk devotee, who wants into the class.
On the one hand, I would be grateful if this would stop, or could be contained.Â Maybe half an hour instead of two hours, for a start.Â But, on the other, I’m pretty certain that this syndrome–like the intense nausea I tend to feel about many classes near the end of the semester–is the source of whatever strengths I have as a teacher.Â It’s all about the gap in my mind between the class that I know I can teach, and the class as it actually went.Â I know that that gap can only asymptotically diminish–for one thing, it’s not up to me alone: students play a role!Â But the gap reminds me that the class could always be better, and should always be better.Â (I don’t want to be too pollyanna-ish about this: My usual end-of-semester nausea can have real repercussions.Â For example, it’s very easy to get frustrated with a class that doesn’t seem to be going well, allowing myself instead to get sucked into thinking about the new semester.)
Ira Glass has a *great* video about this (via, like most good things about work/productivity and related issues, 43folders), arguing that one’s failure, especially self-perceived failure, is in part a function of what gives you a voice, and so you just have to push through it.Â So, here’s to another decade of feeling miserable about my ability to reach students!