Celebrating 10 years of imposter syndrome

This fall semester will mark, if my math is correct, ten years that I’ve been teaching courses of my own design.  (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.  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.  I’ve gotten some recognition for my teaching, and have good evaluations.

What hasn’t changed is the gnawing anxiety of imposter syndrome.   (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.  By chance, I was on campus and was able to set up a meeting a couple of hours later.  I spent the ENTIRE two hours speculating about the nature of the favor: “Stop clowning at the front of the class.”  “Stop passing yourself off as knowledgeable about the internet.”  “Try delivering actual content for a change, instead of focusing on teaching methods for reading and writing.”  Seriously.  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?  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.  Maybe half an hour instead of two hours, for a start.  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.  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.  I know that that gap can only asymptotically diminish–for one thing, it’s not up to me alone: students play a role!  But the gap reminds me that the class could always be better, and should always be better.  (I don’t want to be too pollyanna-ish about this: My usual end-of-semester nausea can have real repercussions.  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.  So, here’s to another decade of feeling miserable about my ability to reach students!

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