Impostor Syndrome

by Mark Wallace

One hears a lot about impostor syndrome in academia these days. It’s endemic. Everyone’s an impostor. If you’re not, you’re not really an academic. It’s a paradox. Though I sometimes feel such feelings, I don’t want to go along with this mode of articulating one’s experience of being an academic. A recent articulation of the phenomenon really rubbed me up the wrong way, from the title down: “For Marginalized Scholars, Self-Promotion is Community Promotion“, by one Eric Grollman. How covenient! By the simple self-labelling as “marginalized” (and yes, he does so explicitly through the article, “my fellow marginalized scholars” and so on), Grollman has created an ideological ploy wherein any self-interested and self-promotional activity is always already validated. Which is nice. He ceases to be capable of acts of private self-interest and becomes an actual embodiment of unprivilege. Any victory for him is one for the downtrodden, etc. He begins:

Self-promotion is on my mind again.  A year ago or so, to my surprise today, I shared the following wisdom on Twitter:

Self-promotion is just as much promotion of my communities as promotion of myself.

Unfortunately, this gem along with other possible gems I’ve shared on Twitter were lost to subsequent self-doubt. I buckled under the nasty criticism of anonymous trolls who, at the time, seemed to read and critique my every tweet and blog post. I let cowardly colleagues bully me into silence, temporarily at least.  In the process of recovering my voice, I have had to face the reality that speaking out (or not) is just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong.

Here, the very beginning of the article, is where I really lost patience with the author. He talks about self-doubt, but what strikes me is that he evinces no self-doubt at all, or even the slightest tolerance for self-reflection or self-criticism. Without giving details or making any arguments, he categorizes all his criticism as “nasty”, and the work of – of course – “trolls”. His colleagues are somehow “cowardly” and, what’s more, “bullied” him in an unspecified way. And that’s all without in any way making even a token attempt to address their points – we are simply to assume that, as the author was offended and hurt by them, they must have been “nasty” and insubstantial. Yet, one can think of several obvious criticisms that could be made about the tweet, criticisms that aren’t nasty at all, the fundamental one being that one can work in the name of a good cause and associate oneself therewith, as a simple mask for self-interest, ultimately benefiting disproportionately or only oneself, and that the notion of individual responsibility may be worth considering – you don’t just get a free pass because you’re poc, LGBT, or whatever.

At the end of the paragraph quoted, Grollman does say that speaking out is “just as much about me as it is the communities to which I belong”. He seems about to finally apply some self-awareness here, but it doesn’t happen; rather he returns to his stance of considering himself a proxy for the disadvantaged everywhere. He ends thusly:

Tasking individual marginalized scholars with self-promoting to help advance their own communities is burdensome, I realize.  If you’re already feeling self-doubt, and the twinge of guilt for turning requests down, and the stress of being overburdened with service demands, knowing that you are either advancing your communities or letting them down is simply more pressure.  But, thinking of the positive flip side — that the promotion of your scholarship and perspective helps to promote your communities — may help to alleviate the self-doubt.

The reality is, it often is so much more than you. When you are excluded, it is because most or all of the members of your communities are excluded. When scholars who dare to speak up are attacked, they are simply targets for a larger assault on liberalism, higher education, anti-racism, feminism, and other causes that promote equal rights and/or social justice. The self-doubt is, at least in part, an internalization of the bias against marginalized scholars in academia and society generally. We ease the work of defenders of the status quo in academia when we are complicit in our own silence, invisibility, and exclusion.

We owe it to ourselves and our communities to be heard, and seen, and cited, and promoted, and included, and engaged.

This ending moves his argument, or at least his rhetoric, on a bit by focusing on how hard and unpleasant self-promotion is. Self-promotion is now a duty one does for one’s community. No reference to the self-promotional part of self-promotion. In a transvaluation of the value, self-promotion has become a public duty. In a brazen cynic, such a move would perhaps demonstrate an admirable nerve – gall, even – but Grollman is not a cynic, rather he is convinced of the transcendent righteousness of his own self-promotion. He feels self-doubt, apparently, but he doesn’t analyse it, assuming instead that it is a function of instutionalized bias. This is an interesting paradox: to feel self-doubt, but to reflexively attribute it to an outside force – “it is this condemnable cultural situation that makes me feel this self-doubt”, one is saying. Is this, then, real self-doubt at all, if it never seems to reach the stage of self-questioning? Maybe Grollman does question himself, but he doesn’t give much evidence in this piece, and the way he dismisses his opponents tends to suggest otherwise. His self-doubt, then, his impostor syndrome, is rather a way of turning the discussion against those who disagree with him, and a way, ultimately, of masking self-interest, for even a spokesman for the marginalized can be self-interested, and his duty cannot be any less to face up to such interest than to promote himself in the name of a greater good.