Embracing Impostor Syndrome

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It seems a fair amount of academics, especially women, suffer from impostor syndrome, “a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan.” Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.” I once calculated that for every book I read I find myself discovering at least ten new books or articles I feel I need to read. That means that if I read a book a week there are about five hundred and twenty new books on my list by the end of the year, each of which feels urgent and essential for my own intellectual development. One’s awareness of the vast body of knowledge we don’t know is actually part of what makes us “experts” but the price we pay for this expertise is a kind of self-doubt. It is always possible that the next book will contain the golden nugget we are searching for.

But there is a flip side to this, which is the recognition that when we start off our careers, whether still in graduate school or as junior faculty, we really are impostors. Sure, there’s always someone like Rex, whose parents read Edward Sapir’s A sketch of the social organization of the Nass River Indians to him before bed instead of Green Eggs and Ham, but most of us only become committed to the idea of becoming experts in a particular field during graduate school. While I had studied anthropology in high school, and even wrote a senior paper on ethnographic film in twelfth grade, by the end of college I still was unsure whether I even wanted to be an academic, not to mention having a clear vision of my own academic career. Even once I was in graduate school, I still dithered about deciding on a research topic until quite late in my career. (Now I advise graduate students to pick some topic right away, even if they change it later on – but that’s a subject for another blog post.) This means that there simply isn’t much time between when we decide we want to be experts in something and when we get a Ph.D. which certifies our supposed expertise.

I could easily create a biography of my life that made it seem as if I was born to do what I do now. But, especially after reading Galen Strawson’s recent piece on self-narration in Aeon, I think such narratives might do more harm than good. For one thing, they might discourage otherwise promising students from embracing a potentially rewarding intellectual journey. We can’t all be Eduardo Kohn who met his thesis advisor in his grandmother’s study when he was twelve. Such self-narrativizing also makes it seem as if we must pick a research focus that fits our biography. No doubt that doing so saves you a lot of time and trouble; if you already are familiar with the language, culture, and scholarship around a particular place you save yourself years of playing catchup. Branching out into the unknown makes life a lot harder; but it can also make it more rewarding. After committing myself to a career in Taiwan studies, my first major academic publication ended up being on India. I’m back to working on Taiwan, but that detour was one of the most intellectually and emotionally gratifying things I’ve ever done.

Thinking about my work on India also makes me realize how ethnography has the potential to imbue the ethnographer with a unique form of expertise in a short amount of time. I don’t speak Hindi and I didn’t major in South Asian studies, but spending six years making a film taught me a lot about the history and struggles of one Indian community. It also focused my own studies of India around a specific set of under-researched historical questions derived from what I learned in the field. Viewed one way, expertise in anthropology is impossible: there is an almost infinite amount of knowledge one is expected to acquire. But when it comes right down to it, a well defined research project can make it possible to gain the necessary expertise in a short amount of time.

One of the most frustrating things about academia is when scholars (and I’m afraid this attitude is all too common) dismiss approaches to the subject matter which draw on a whole different bundle of questions, skills, and experiences from those that they themselves have mastered. Academics over-value the particular set of skills and knowledge that they have spent a lifetime acquiring, while devaluing those that they have had to ignore in their own quest for expertise. We could all do with a dose of Socratic skepticism, understanding the limits of our own expertise in order to better value the work done by other scholars who bring an entirely different set of research skills, life experiences, and theoretical questions to bear on the topics we hold dear. By accepting that we are all, to some extent, imposters, we might gain a measure of humility in the face of the tremendous diversity of approaches within our discipline.

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