Essay on feeling like an impostor on the academic job hunt
Impostors, Performers, Professionals - II
This is the second of a two-part essay. The first piece may be found here.
I try my best to be just like I am,
But everybody wants you to be just like them.
--Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm”
Putting Yourself Out There in Pen, Paper and Person During the Job Search
In Part One we discussed how our gender, working-class backgrounds, and individual temperaments affected our experience of "impostor syndrome" in graduate school, specifically during our qualifying exams. Part Two of our story chronicles Teagan and Steven’s experience and presentation of self as we enter the academic profession. But of course before we could move comfortably from our exams to our current tenure-track professorships, we had one more major performance and authorial trial to endure, one more test of the impostor syndrome to overcome: the job search. We found ourselves fully marshalling all of our authorial powers up to that point — updating C.V.s down to the minute, putting together the teaching portfolio, sample assignments, sample course syllabuses, meticulous cover letters and statements of teaching philosophy and spell-checked email responses.... Then needing to present the person behind the pen and paper.
Teagan’s written application materials generated quite a lot of interest, and her schedule quickly filled up with interviews. None of them seemed to go well, however. Teagan wasn’t able to present herself well to exhausted strangers who had read her materials weeks ago. She couldn’t summon up the level of self-presentation needed to show interviewers that she was worth inviting to a second (on-campus) interview. After suffering through the post-interview weeks with no callbacks, Teagan applied to a late-advertising university and was asked to do a phone interview.
Determined to finally show her true worth to a hiring committee, and quite aware that her "regular" self wasn’t communicating that worth, she borrowed another persona for the interview. As part of her dissertation work, Teagan had conducted a research interview with an administrator at the University of Washington, Sheila Edwards Lange. Lange struck Teagan as the most poised, articulate, intelligent and professionally passionate woman she had ever met. Listening to the tapes of the research interview, Teagan realized she could be Sheila Edwards Lange for her own job interview. And, somehow, it worked. The hiring committee invited her to a campus interview where she continued to perform this poised-and-articulate self, and subsequently offered her a position. Teagan deliberately took on a false persona, put on a mask, performed as an impostor. Or perhaps she used Lange’s persona as a tool to bring the polish of her written self to her physical self, to give her the confidence to behave as if she were qualified for, because she in fact was qualified for, an academic appointment. Either way, an actual physical job contract came in the mail a few months later.
Steven worked his way through the rigors and ups and downs of the job search in typical fashion. He looked quite good on paper, so he received 24 callbacks for interviews, and ended up doing six campus visits. During (what some have called the "meat market" of) the Modern Language Association Conference, where most yearly English job interviews are conducted, Steven had the opportunity to interview in Chicago with several scholars he had read, studied and admired. One in particular, Scholar X, was a writing center scholar he was excited to meet and anxious to present an "acceptable self" to.
But when Steven showed up at the end of a long day of interviews with other schools and scholars, he was faced with a group far sterner than the exams committee described above. Perhaps he was too excited about meeting Scholar X; perhaps too tired after far too much running from interview to interview, talking, and persuasive attempts; maybe his tie had been cinched up too tight for too long…At one point during the interview, while describing how he would design and conduct a writing center peer-tutor training course, Scholar X, without a hint of irony, told Steven, "You probably won’t be teaching any tutor-training courses here." Sure, Steven should not have been fazed by this. He should have taken the blow, blown it off, and continued on. But looking at this once-idolized sage now turned petty territorialist, Steven could not help but drop the façade and let his true distaste show through. He had a hard time believing this was the person behind the pen.
Goffman describes this phenomenon in terms of embarrassment and the idea of an "acceptable self." He posits that at such moments, while it is typically understood that the person whose self has been threatened should be ashamed, "by the standards of the little social system maintained through the interaction, the discreditor is just as guilty as the person he discredits — sometimes more so, for, if he has been posing as a tactful man, in destroying another’s image he destroys his own." Steven knew he could have played the role of “bigger person” here and not let Scholar X’s little remark shake him up so badly. Yet at that moment no job seemed worth selling out to present an acceptable self. Steven had walked the line between impostor and legitimate performer, one that can be so hard to balance on sometimes, and perhaps had misstepped. Likely, the interview committee had done a fine job of unmasking Steven to their satisfaction.
We both struggled to bring our physical performance to the level of our written performance when on the job market. We both felt that our written selves were truer reflections of our abilities than our in-person selves. Teagan’s job market experience took place a year before Steven’s; in March of his year (2008) we met at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in New Orleans. Teagan was happily employed and experiencing her first academic travel with a per diem while Steven was suffering acutely from late-term job market stress. We spent a day together (Steven was in between campus interviews and couldn’t stay long at the conference). He had had some bad experiences (the above being one example) and was concerned he wouldn’t find a suitable position. He also had walking pneumonia and, sweating in the New Orleans heat while popping cold medicine, worried aloud about his prospects. In the middle of the day he had an informal job interview scheduled with a university, and Teagan was invited along. We both thought this was strange, but met with the committee members at a hotel restaurant for coffee.
At the meeting/interview, Steven was subdued and a little slower than normal (cold medicine) but came across as calm and confident. We could tell the committee was impressed; after the interview, while watching Steven’s conference presentation, one of the committee members remarked to Teagan that Steven was "so sophisticated."
"Oh yes, he certainly is," she replied, and looking at him at the podium in his black shirt and pants, European shoes, and urban-shaved head she could see what he meant. However, the description of her friend surprised her, for Steven — passionate, loud, sometimes overconfident Steven — was ... well, just imagine the two of us eating pizza and laughing at trashy TV with our dogs on the couch and you might get an idea. Later we decided that maybe it was the cold medicine that made him into a presentable, "sophisticated," job applicant and into a candidate that the committee pursued and ultimately hired.
Moving (Into) Our Professions: Conclusion
As she finishes up her fifth year as an assistant professor and faces the prospect of tenure and promotion, Teagan is struck by the new responsibilities her colleagues have presented her with. She has been asked to chair hiring committees, serve on peer evaluation committees, mentor new colleagues, write grants, organize workshops, and much more. She understands that this is the nature of the job, and she responds in public by bemoaning her dwindling research time. But privately she swells with a sense of accomplishment. She did it! She’s really here and, what’s more, she’s being taken seriously. People on her university’s campus come to her for advice. They treat her like an expert. She’s really doing it!
Maybe everyone feels like this as they enter into the academic profession, constantly surprised to be there, constantly pleased to be reminded of the status, the title, the responsibilities and accomplishments. In some ways this is the flip side of the impostor syndrome: instead of worrying that she doesn’t belong or isn’t really good enough, Teagan is surprised to find that she actually is good enough, and that, in some ways, the fact that her colleagues view her as a competent professional makes her a competent professional. Stray feelings of impostor syndrome can be identified as such, catalogued, and safely ignored.
Of course a junior faculty member is not only judged on committee work, but also evidence of scholarship. During the first year of her professorship Teagan was suffering from post-dissertation writing fatigue. She wanted to research and write, but it was difficult to find the time and energy. Plus, she was working in a teaching institution where the pressure to publish, although certainly present, isn’t as intense as for those in a research institution. For Teagan, finding her way into scholarship at a teaching institution post-dissertation was a slow process with many false starts.
Does it make sense to write a book? Should the scholarship be more focused on teaching? What do I really want to be working on? During this dry spell no amount of positive teaching experiences or successful administrative ventures could stand in for the pleasure and accomplishment of research, writing and publication. After about a year, with the help of a summer research fellowship from her university and a daughter who moved to college, leaving a spare room with space for a writing desk, projects started coming down the pipeline. And the writing, when it came, signified a new place in the world, a place beyond the impostor syndrome and into a professional performance that is carved out of a more substantial material.
Steven has taken the advantages afforded by his new position and titles of authority and tried his hardest to milk this newfound professional identity for every bit of writing it enables. Like Teagan, he is currently working at a “teaching institution” that values scholarship. But as Teagan suggests, since they are both also campus administrators -- highly visible ones at that -- they both use writing for all sorts of purposes and they both must write in a variety of genres — e-mails, letters, proposals, reports — documents that sometimes must be more persuasive, other times more informative. (Though, of course, one could easily argue that all the writing we do serves a persuasive function in relation to a performance and representation of self or ethos.)
So with every writing task Steven finds himself facing, he also knows he faces a performance of self and the potential for an unmasking of authorial and professional credibility. Since both he and Teagan are as yet untenured, they know they still have some more legitimizing authorial hoops to jump through. Steven finds himself calling on the memories of his mentors’ words more than ever. The most important lesson his mentors always repeated to Steven was to try to slow down and think things through before he acts. Steven, given his tendency to sometimes act a bit brashly, has taken this advice as close to heart as possible on a daily basis. Before he sends an email, for example, he often sits on it for a while making sure it represents as closely as possible his communicative intentions. He thinks a lot about who might possibly need or want to be cc'd in that email; he spell-checks religiously, but double- and triple-checks the subject line because spell-check doesn’t check that. And this cautious (OCDish?) checking of self applies to all other things he writes, all other authorial correspondences. He realizes that now more than ever his authorial moves and image not only represent himself but also the community of fellow authors, teachers, and scholars he calls colleagues and friends.
We have written our ways into our professional identities and our material professional realities. Sometimes writing leads us to become what we aspire to be, sometimes it reveals us as we "really" are, sometimes it conceals our inadequacies. But most of all it serves as a presentation of self at least as important as the physical face-to-face.
A large part of our education has been to learn to accept success as well as failure, to manage feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, and to nurture feelings of confidence and self-assuredness. Our experiences are in some ways similar and in some ways very different from each other’s, but if we can take anything from our intertwined tales it is perhaps that the life of the academic necessarily is the life of an impostor — one who is continuously posturing, masking, unmasking, borrowing, building confidence, suffering through insecurity. Maybe our backgrounds have formed identities that are especially prone to imposturing, or maybe our backgrounds have led us to more acutely question the legitimacy of our own personas. Both of us have pushed our ways through hurdles sometimes blindly with what seems like sheer force of will using whatever tools, and personas, we find at our disposal. Sometimes, when it is all over, there is blood on the ground, symbols of our best attempts to maintain our self-respect and individual identities while at the same time trying to earn civic respect and dignity. In the end, though, what we have learned from these experiences is not how to stop being an impostor, but how to successfully perform our professional identities in satisfying, exciting, productive ways both on the page and in the flesh.
We may never truly be cured. And maybe we don’t need to be.
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and co-coordinator of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University. Teagan E. Decker is assistant professor of English and director of the writing center at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. They are currently co-editing the forthcoming collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Collaborative Peer Review and Response in the Writing Classroom with Michelle LaFrance.