Written by Maria Dabboussy (doctoral student, DGES) and Sophie Tamas (Associate Professor, DGES & SICS)
Research conducted by Maria, Sophie, and Brittany Amell (doctoral student, SLALS)
In the fall of 2019, we began studying imposter syndrome as a public feeling that circulates in and structures experiences of academic spaces and practices at Carleton University. Our anonymous online survey of graduate students in FASS and FPA generated 43 responses between September 2019 and February 2020: 18 doctoral students, 22 master’s students and two unspecified.
This research, funded by a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning grant, was prompted by overwhelming pre-pandemic concerns about the well-being of our graduate students. Their academic experiences of isolation, exclusion and anxiety have since been exacerbated by our collective lockdowns and move to a completely virtual learning environment. It is too soon to predict the long-term effects of COVID-19 on academic communities, but its disruptive and isolating impact has likely made it even harder for our students to feel belonging and confident as emerging scholars.
Participants identified imposter syndrome as feeling inadequate, out-of-place, unworthy and/or unqualified, even when these feelings are untrue. The sense of being a fraud, a fluke or a fake manifests as an internal dialogue, an affective state and as a sudden feeling that could be triggered by any number of things. Rather than approaching this as an oddly prevalent personal self-esteem problem, we propose that impostering be considered a public spatial phenomenon, indicated by a felt sense that one does not belong. In the same way that social norms based on an imaginary average body can produce disability, academic norms can produce impostering. All participants found that imposter syndrome resulted in a range of negative physical, emotional, social and relational effects. Participants articulated diverse factors that make experiences of impostering worse and better, and offered tentative definitions for the opposite of imposter syndrome focused predominantly on belonging and confidence.
Although we are still getting to know the data, we want to share our preliminary thoughts about its implications for a few concrete academic practices. These recommendations are primarily drawn from Sophie’s interdisciplinary standpoint and are offered as an invitation to thought rather than a prescription.
- Grading and Evaluation
If many students who have always done well in school don’t feel competent, increasing the transparency of our evaluation systems could help them trust and learn from their assessments. Progress might be achieved by using some non-competitive peer-review or structured self-assessments and by trying to pace and scale assignments so that students can feel proud of their own work before handing it in. Specific praise and critiques are more readily believed than generic comments. Making students accountable to each other and to themselves can be more energizing and less paralyzing than performing new skills for professorial judgement.
- Participation and Engagement
Being asked to state opinions in zones of ignorance is not a culturally neutral practice. Because many differences are invisible, it is impossible to know what classroom participation costs our students. Fostering participation is an essential part of inclusive experiential learning, but if we do not recognize it as an exercise of power we may be careless about its effects. Students’ ability to consent is constrained by their need to please their teachers because grades often determine access to funding. Even subtly coerced participation reduces engagement by marking the classroom as unsafe. Students who have been punished for error and failure will rightly fear engagement. The operation of withdrawal as both an involuntary and a strategic response to impostering can be experienced by instructors as a tacit professional and/or personal critique which leads to mutual retreat. Instructors reinforce this pattern by selectively engaging with students who affirm our sense of capacity, locating the problem in our students rather than in our pedagogies, and by expecting a one-sided exposure of vulnerability. Assessments based on participation might measure academic cultural competency rather than achievement or capacity.
Departmental cultures and terminologies vary widely and include both written and unwritten rules about expectations in and beyond the classroom. Access to belonging is not just determined by academic achievement but rests on other forms of privilege and familiarity. Faculty’s anxieties about our own belonging can be communicated verbally and non-verbally, reinforcing students’ sense of precarity. The distribution of space, attention and other resources tacitly rank-orders academic bodies. Student interactions are overlaid on and shaped by complex collegial and institutional dynamics that mediate their access to belonging. Rather than supporting success and progress, the push to program completion can be experienced as dismissive and rejecting, based on institutional financial priorities. Students may find themselves caught in the cognitive dissonance between our stated egalitarian emancipatory aspirations and our elitist academic structures and habits. They might feel like they don’t belong because the conditional welcome provided does not treat them as if they belong. Framing this as a personal perceptual error or neurosis erases our institutional accountability.
If you’d like to learn more about our research, please review the following resources:
- You can read the full report on the Emotional Geographies Lab website.
- Watch Sophie’s Welcome to My Online Classroom workshop from March 3, where she shared her experiments with online pedagogies that resist impostering.
- Our team collaborated on a collection of data visualizations containing aggregated, de-identified selections from the survey data.
- Britt developed a ‘Conversation Starter Pack: Imposter Feelings Edition’ as a way to prompt and facilitate conversation around imposter syndrome.
- The Mindful Impostering workbook was developed in response to the move to online learning for the 2020-21 academic year. Mindful Impostering can be printed on 8.5 by 11 paper and folded into a workbook, or utilized digitally. This workbook has the goal of familiarizing its user with their relationship to their imposter self. It aims to bring the imposter self into the known in ways that reduce fear and shame around impostering.
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