Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling

By Maddie Breeze

This blog is about trying to re-think ‘imposter syndrome’ in academic labour as a public feeling. I’ve tried to do this by using semi-fictional auto-ethnography – in other words by writing a story, drawing on my experience. ‘Imposter syndrome’ can include the conviction that markers of professional success have been awarded by mistake or achieved via a convincing performance, alongside a fear of being unmasked, not only as inadequate but as a fraud too. Feelings of inadequacy are accompanied by a felt-as-inauthentic relationship to indicators of achievement.

Blogs about ‘imposter syndrome’ tend to recommend talking about it as one way to ‘overcome it’, and that’s part of what I’m doing here. But I want to move away from understanding ‘imposter syndrome’ as a personal problem of faulty self-esteem inviting individualized coping solutions, and see what happens when we situate feelings of imposterism in socio-political context, ask what these feelings can tell us about the structure and governance of academic labour, and think of feeling like an imposter as a potential source of action and site of agency. Here I focus on this third aspect, in relation to feminist work in higher education:

I’ve just finished a lecture on feminist methodology and am trying not to feel too disheartened that students’ discussion focused on the need for ‘objectivity’ and ‘detachment’ to ‘avoid bias’, perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job of framing questions of power and positionality in the research process. I slump down the corridors, dig my phone out and start thumbing through emails, one jumps out, an article I re-submitted about three months ago, has – after many revisions – been accepted. I squint at my phone, the text is tiny, my eyes are tired, I must be reading it wrong, this looks too good to be true. Back at my desk, I turn on my computer and check, the article has been accepted.

A flush of validation. And relief, that’s one less thing to worry about, I grab a thick sharpie and cross this item from the to-do list tacked on the wall. I almost feel like celebrating, except I have to work on a funding bid tonight, due for internal review by the end of the week. Jubilation gives way to mundane concerns, I’ll have to update my CV… Surely this will help build the case for my fractional six month contract to be extended… Maybe I am successfully ‘managing my academic self in the neoliberal university’. Maybe I am ‘REF-ready’ after all… I’ll have to double check this article is REF-able, and if the university plans to make a sociology submission… Should I tweet about this? How does open access even work? I force myself to login to Twitter, swallow the discomfort of self-promotion, update my online profile, and email the open access repository.

Printing a pile of blank module evaluation forms for the afternoon’s students to complete, I bump into a colleague, whisper about the article’s acceptance, and get a congratulatory hug. A sense of achievement – and generous congratulations from colleagues – feels authentic. But there’s something else too. Back at my desk, replying to as many emails as I can and shoving a sandwich into my mouth as fast as I can before the next class, the anxious monologue kicks in.

Oh shit. Now this is actually going to be published there is a chance that people – real sociologists – might actually read it. Well, maybe read the abstract at least. How did this ever get through peer review? The reviewers must have been too rushed, or the journal must be so desperate for articles that they’ve lowered their standards. Now the real scrutiny is going to start, and the core of my inadequacy – not really an academic, not really a sociologist – will undoubtedly be exposed. The reviewers’ comments required that the paper ‘demonstrate a more substantive contribution to the discipline’. The reviewers didn’t ask that I ‘take the feminism out’ but ‘working up’ the sociological relevance did come at some expense to the feminist analysis. I think of all the times I’ve edited my CV, and how ‘feminist methods’ and ‘gender & queer theory’ moves up and down the list of research interests depending on the role and institution to which I’m applying.

I close my eyes and imagine my feminist academic heroes, cringing as I do. I bet they never compromised their politics for publications. I try and tell myself that I didn’t change the content, just the ‘framing’, but I wrote that paper in part because I needed a publication. The rationale was to get something published before the end of my contract, in time for the next round of job applications. No time to think this through, have to get to the next class.

Later that evening at the kitchen table, editing the ‘impact strategy’ over dinner, I realise I should add this newly accepted article to the ‘selected list of publications’ section of the bid. Although there’s nothing selective about this list, I’m including everything I’ve ever remotely published, including a book review and working paper. The list now almost fills a whole page. Perhaps the whole point of working so hard to get that article accepted was making a longer list.

No wonder I’m convinced the paper isn’t good enough, no wonder I don’t feel like a ‘real’ academic, if all I was doing was playing the game, following the rules in order to get accepted, an instrumental exercise in pursuit of a microscopic increase in the chance of getting funding. I don’t think that a longer list of publications necessarily makes me a better candidate for research grants or employment. It might mean that a selection committee pause slightly longer over my application instead of discarding it in the first round, but other than that?

I don’t think that publication metrics necessarily or straightforwardly indicate value, of research, or of me as a candidate. I don’t entirely believe in the stamps of legitimacy, or eligibility indicators, or person specification criteria, that I am trying to pursue. Nevertheless, I make a note to actually look up the official difference between a ‘three star’ and a ‘four star’ publication, and to actually calculate my citation index ranking. I don’t really know how to assess the value of my work in a way that doesn’t orientate to these criteria. If you’re not convinced by, and are critical of, the accepted measures of ‘good’ work, how do you know if your work is any good? If you’re any good?

Universities are stratified and stratifying, constituted by and constitutive of class privilege, gender inequality, and racism. The effects of this can, alongside those of the marketization, entrepreneurialism, workforce casualization, and audit cultures of contemporary UK HE, become read as ‘privatized anxieties that are understood to reflect on the value and worth of the individual’ rather than as public problems and social-structural issues. This landscape contextualizes ‘imposter syndrome’ among staff and students, what I want to do here is think about what can be done with imposter feelings. Part of Cvetcovich’s public feelings project was de-stigmatizing negative affects associated with depression and re-conceptualizing them as resources for political action, and therefore as sites of agency. I wonder if feeling like an imposter can be re-thought along similar lines.

Feminist academic work involves seeking ‘to question and transform existing modes, frameworks, and institutions of knowledge production’. Epistemologically and politically then, feminist academics can encounter the problem of being ‘within and against’ university institutions. Feminist epistemologies (often but not always) seek to challenge conventional ways of knowing, and feminist academics (often but not always) seek to resist neoliberal governance in the details of their academic practice. These projects are complicated by ‘our’ ambivalent complicity in neoliberal HEIs, and the imperative for recognition and legibility within (some of the) dominant definitions of what ‘proper knowledge’ and ‘good work’ look like. If your feminism means that you are sceptical of established measures of the value of academic work, and means that you do not necessarily or only aim for a ‘successful’ academic career, feeling like an imposter might be no bad thing.

I wonder if felt-as inauthentic-inadequate relationships to measurements of academic ‘success’ can be refigured as critique of these standards, and as potential resources for their reformulation, rather than being taken-for-granted as private problems of individual deficiency. ‘Failing’ to meet some definitions of success – publically, collectively, and strategically – might expose how feeling inadequate and inauthentic is a function of assessment according to criteria that not only are impossible to meet, but that one wishes to reject, politically and epistemologically.

I want to end with a caveat and note of caution about who can afford to embrace imposter feelings, and whose ‘failures’ are likely to be read – and stick – as individual deficiency. Some kinds of strategic failure may be less or more risky dependent on levels of seniority, employment contract status, and the kind of HEI one works at. White and middle class feminist academics’ ‘failures’ are very likely less risky to their status and career progression, compared to Black and working class feminists whose ‘failures’ threaten their job and financial security, and whose can be recaptured to evidence reward-able critical reflexivity, underscore the importance of collective organizing around failure across intersectional solidarities.

This blog is based on a chapter ‘Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling’ in the edited collection Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University: Feminist Flights, Fights and Failures edited by Yvette Taylor and Kinneret Lahad and published with Palgrave Macmillan.

Maddie Breeze is Lecturer in Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University. She tweets at @maddie_breeze

Originally posted 20th May 2017.

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