Academic (and Other) Impersonators

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From the Chronicle of Higher Education issue dated November 9, 2007, this article on successful academics who feel like they are merely impersonating successful academics:  

On a recent evening, Columbia University held a well-attended workshop for young academics who feel like frauds.

These were duly vetted, highly successful scholars who nonetheless live in creeping fear of being found out. Exposed. Sent packing.

If that sounds familiar, you may have the impostor syndrome. In psychological terms, that’s a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment. * * * The condition was first identified in 1978 by the psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who initially thought it was an anxiety unique to women. They avoided the word “syndrome,” calling it instead the “impostor phenomenon.”

“I didn’t want it to be seen as one more thing people could see as wrong with women,” says Ms. Clance.

She need not have worried.

The idea quickly struck a chord with scholars from the working class, along with other beneficiaries of the social mobility that infused higher education in the 1960s and 1970s. Those new academics bristled at the old guard’s sense of entitlement. But they found themselves crippled by a stubborn inability to feel the same.

Meanwhile, scholars who came from academic legacies : the children of the old guard : had feelings of unearned privilege to contend with.

In other words, we have come so far in the American postindustrial meritocracy that everyone has equal access to guilt-ridden feelings of fraudulence.

The full article is here  (subscription required, unfortunately).

The Chronicle article makes light of the possibility that more women than men feel like imposters.   Even if is true that women and men equally suffer from the “imposter phenomenon,” my anecdotal experience suggests that  women are more likely to voice (to another woman, at least) their feelings of unworthiness.    

But for women of all colors and other outsiders, the feelings of being an imposter are not the product of only  “American postindustrial meritocracy.”   Others view us that way.   When the only female attorney in a conference room is assumed to be the administrative assistant or paralegal, and some men in the room openly express their surprise when the woman starts to lead the business negotiations, she has been treated as an imposter.    When a  young female professor worries about calling her students by first or last names, she is afraid of being treated as an imposter.   The “imposter pheonomenon” is not generated only from within.   It is a part of the sexism, racism and other bias that is in the polluted air we breathe.  

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Academic (and Other) Impersonators

  1. Ralph M. Stein says:

    Over the years the word I have most often heard from female students and friends – rarely male – is not “imposter” but “fraud.” The self-doubt goes to the person’s believe in her abilities and comes with a lurking fear that the achieved benefits that apparent success has brought are ephemeral and likely to disappear.

    To a certain extent the working worlf scenarios described by Professor Crawford feed this damaging self-view but more of it comes from early upbringing and a lack of strong, nurturing support. I’m no psychologist but when I’ve had female students tell m e this I always ask about their background and almost invariably there’s an absence of strong, achieving female role models in the family or close at hand. Hopefully, that is rapidly changing.

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  3. Random says:

    If only it were true that feelings of impostership and fraud could always be traced back to personal influences or lack thereof. Unfortunately, as is the case not only with me but with many strong, capable women I know who also have strong, capable female role models…the problem persists among us as well. I have a sense that structural issues, of gender and of what the Chronicle deems “American postindustrial meritocracy” (but which we all know in our hearts is really a plutocracy and that doesn’t help), play a rather large role.