October 5, 2022
Today, I shared with all of SMC's faculty a great opinion piece from Inside Higher Ed about how faculty can inadvertently add to a student's sense of imposter syndrome. In that article, Angelica S. Gutierrez shares how little things, such as being distracted during a student visit for office hours, can signal to the student that their time (more importantly, their need in the moment) is not valuable. The article is a great reminder of how much influence faculty can have on students questioning their presence within academia.
It got me thinking about my own Imposter Syndrome, something that still resides in the darkest recesses of my mind (or is it the soul?). This acknowledgement may surprise many people. After all, David Fleming has 3 degrees issued by reputable R-1 universities. He has been working in higher education in some context for 37 years. He has been a chief academic officer at two institutions for 15 years. He is the son of a college professor, department chair, and world-renown Pharmacologist. Who do you think you are kidding, Fleming?
Everyone! That's the freaking point.
For one thing, to be the son, underachieving that I was much of my childhood, of a famous Harvard- and Princeton-trained Pharmacologist, is a good starting place for impostering. Sure, only in the later stages of my life did I appreciate what kind of imposter syndrome Dad must have felt as a 1950s "diversity" recruit from the boondocks of Montana (speaking strictly from the Cambridge, Massachusetts', perspective). My mom's feelings of not being worthy, as the other-side-of-the-tracks high-school-educated wife of the Harvard student, I knew well, but it was only in reading some of my mother's journals after she passed that I realized how much my dad wondered if he fit into academia. His first letter to my mother upon arriving at Harvard (he was a year ahead of her in school) tells he felt like such a "hick" for standing in line to register with his three suitcases because he hadn't come in a day or more earlier.
Dad was not really a first-generation college student (his father had a law degree) but given that he had been separated (in every possible meaning of the word) from his father from a young age, he might as well have been.
But, what about me? Why did I have to suffer the indignities of self-doubt in the academic arena? Well, because West Virginia University was still a pretty small universe in the early 1980s. I was always going to be Bill Fleming's son, and so even when I started my master's degree at WVU, with the wonderful support of Dr. Almasy, Dr. Blaydes, or Dr. Eaton, I still felt like that support was merited as much by being Bill's kid as by any brilliance in literature.
Even when I was getting "A's" and being recognized for scholarly writing in a field miles apart from Pharmacology, that wasn't enough to dismiss that voice in my head: "wow, you fooled them again." When I moved on to Bloomington, Indiana, for my Ph.D., no longer identified as Bill Fleming's son, I quickly tried to disappear within the ridiculously large department that was IU's English Department. The grades remained, the support by fantastic faculty remained, but the fact that I still saw myself as an outsider still existed, and maybe even more sharply drawn. That was certainly not helped by the misery of job counseling and seeking in my final years at IU, where well-intentioned faculty only understood one path: careers in schools like Indiana, where research might take precedence over teaching. My appointment as a faculty member at Detroit College of Business was almost sheer luck, saving me from seeing my phoniness completely exposed through interviews that never occurred at a University of Dayton or a University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
In a world of academia, where the big boys count a lot more than the other boys (and don't kid yourself if you don't think the gender here matters), being an instructor of the year at DCB was never on par with getting a paper accepted by Oxford Literary Review, or where watching hundreds of young men and women graduate from college when they never expected it was never on par with an NEH grant of $100,000 for folklore studies, my imposter syndrome stayed. Can one even still call it an imposter when it has settled down, bunked, and set up residency in your brain for years?
Even when in 2010 I was recognized as alumni of the year by WVU's Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at their Hooding Ceremony for Commencement, I questioned if I should be there. Dr. Almasy introduced me as the local kid who went on to do great things, and I couldn't help but focus on the "local" (if you're a kid from Morgantown, West Virginia, you stand a very good chance of being the kid of a faculty member) and not on the "great" things. I was even invited to sit on the stage for the entire College's undergraduate ceremony, alongside 10-12 other people I couldn't identify, and yet the same stage with former President Bill Clinton, so that the whole time my mind was thinking "wow, one of these things is not like the others on this stage."
Or to answer my question of earlier: Why did I have to suffer the indignities of self-doubt in the academic arena? Because I am human.
And why do I bore all of you (perhaps both of you) with all this relived angst? Because Gutierrez's article strikes a nerve about the millions of students who come and go through college.
Any individual's biggest enemy to greatness is self-doubt. Self-doubt, especially in the case of Imposter Syndrome, comes from recognizing the greatness of others, and believing we can't possibly measure up. Perhaps the arrogant or the sociopathic can bury their own doubts so deeply because they just don't care if others are great.
However the second biggest enemy is bias, our not seeing the other's "otherness," the characteristics that define his or her (or these days, "their") individuality; that the quiet kid sitting in the back is not bored by the lecture, but instead feeling completely overwhelmed by the students in the front who seem able to respond to every question or comment. Or, even more so, just dead tired by constantly being "on," afraid to reveal he/she/they is that hick from Montana?
Recognize that both of these enemies reside fully in our minds. Our brains are our worst enemy on general principle because they delude us, deceive us, and betray us. The kid asleep in class? He is disrespecting me and his classmates (or he is coming off of a 12-hour shift, but still taking classes, to get to a better place in life). The student doodling in her notebook? She is not doing her work and deserves to fail (or she is completely flummoxed by the assignment and convinced she is the only one who doesn't understand). The girl who won't look me in my eyes? She is hiding something (like probably the abuse she has suffered at home).
I think what irritates me most is that teachers are supposed to be smarter than this. We are supposed to be in tune with our implicit biases; we are supposed to exude empathy; we are supposed to be rewarded by elevating students to higher knowledge or better options in life (lord knows, we aren't rewarded by money). And yet we are the epitome of the human race, maybe the smartest monkeys but still big old dumb apes.