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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6 Responses to Celebrating 10 years of imposter syndrome

  1. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who (still) freaks out about this sort of stuff — and I’ve been doing this a decade longer than you! There’s an interesting article by Peggy McIntosh at Wellesley about how women are more prone to this thinking.

  2. Brian says:

    Thanks for this post, Jason. I have been going through these same emotions as I’m prepping for my classes this fall: worried that I’ll have nothing of value to say to the students. That they’ll figure out that my grasp of media theory is not quite on par with Baudrillard’s. That I don’t know enough about the historical context of 1964 to be effective in talking about McLuhan.

    I guess what this means is that I can’t realistically expect these emotions to go away. But knowing that they are part of the experience for everyone means that I can maybe wrap my mind around just pushing forward.

  3. I just received a book the very existence of which confirms my imposter status: John Sutherland’s ‘How to Read a Victorian Novel.’ Clearly, I’ve been doing it wrong all these years but everyone has been too nice to say so. Is one symptom of this syndrome having dreams about showing up for the first class either in the wrong room or without any notes?

  4. Alex says:

    This affects students as well, I might add. Well, At least, it affects me – every time I present a project, be it a conference, a panel, URCAD – I am shocked that anyone could possibly interested in what I have to say, because I am fairly certain that I am making it up. This might be the case – is it weird to hope I have imposters?

  5. Frothy McBaldman says:

    I will add my amen to the cries of the congregation. Nowadays, however, I find that I can overcome imposter syndrome in the classroom by dwelling on all the other areas of endeavor in which I am woefully underprepared and altogether inadequate.

    I am hoping this will hold me in good stead until I teach Romantic poetry and prose in the fall, at which point I assume my students will rise up and point at me like Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  6. See, I can’t even get book info right: ‘How to Read a Victorian Novel’ is George Levine’s contribution to the ‘how to read’ genre. John Sutherland’s (which I’ve also got) is just plain ‘How to Read a Novel.’

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