Having spent the past quarter century in various academic roles, I am currently serving as a dean of education at a comprehensive public university. However, when I visit P-12 schools, or meet new people in any setting outside the academy, I generally answer the question “What do you do at the university?” by saying simply, “I work in the education office.”
Reflecting on just why I answer the question this way has provided me with a perfect opportunity to share my realization with other women in the academy: for nearly that entire quarter century, I have felt like an impostor in the academy. And I’ve also come to realize that I’m not alone.
It turns out that many of us perceive our fellow academicians as embodying perfection -- as inhabiting a space wherein we are impostors, only guests with a limited-access pass. We yearn to bask amid the glow of well-published academic achievement, and at the same time, we secretly doubt our own accomplishments or even inwardly admit that we are all still works in progress or, worse, frauds or impostors.
Perhaps having overheard it somewhere, or maybe simply convinced that I could not be alone in thinking this way, when I finally googled the words “feeling like an impostor,” I was both relieved and saddened to find the trove of scholarship that began with Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, two professors at Georgia State, back in the 1970s. Although I remain disconcerted that the phenomenon persists today, I am now resolved to share my personal sense of relief with other high-achieving women that we are not impostors -- that we have earned our way to breathing this rarified air, regardless of which pathways we followed.
I haven’t researched the data on the socioeconomic class and upbringing of my fellow members of the academy. But conventional wisdom and anecdotal reviews of CVs over the past two decades suggest that most of my colleagues probably followed very different pathways than I did. As a first-generation college student, I made a lot of guesses and mistakes along the way. My pathway was marked with some early damaging self-images, a few false starts and some key decisions to “keep a foot in two camps” that would lay the foundation for my persistent case of impostor syndrome.
The early self-images stemmed from internalizing disparaging classist comments, such as those a third-grade classmate made to me about my rusty secondhand bicycle, onto which I had duct-taped some cast-off streamers from a Fourth of July parade. That image remained as a central part of my identity for more years than I want to admit. Later, as a high school student, I couldn’t quite decide between a vocational or an academic track, so I chose both -- taking morning graphic arts classes at the vocational school and scrubbing off the darkroom chemicals or printing press ink in time for an afternoon honors English or history class. And after that, between restaurant shifts, I worked on mainframe computers at a very large corporation to help pay for my college classes. When I finally entered the academy, I chose to balance administrative work with parenting and with ultimately earning my doctoral degree in leadership, some 15 years later than the average academic professional.
More significant, my early career decisions and missteps were based on my admittedly limited knowledge and perspective, and my lack of a long-term career goal. My personal family planning often outweighed my advanced degree planning, and my geographic relocations for what started out as that very first mainframe job took me across the country and back when my spouse’s job changed, with no particular professional position to guide each of the moves.
Now, as the mother of three grown children, I have no regrets about the choices I made. But along the way, I spent most of the time rationalizing those choices after the fact as “gut feelings” or decisions that just “seemed right at the time.” In recent years, I’ve come to realize that I eventually did take charge of my own direction, and in a deliberately divergent way.
As a contract instructor in Pennsylvania, I could have continued waiting for a tenure-track position, but I decided instead to take a leap as a “learning architect” at a very small and innovative college in New England. That first leadership opportunity also came with strong support from that college president to earn my doctorate, affording me another chance to once again search for a coveted faculty position. However, I chose again to take a leap with a technology services corporation, known then as SunGard, and learn more about systems, accreditation and strategic planning than I ever knew existed. The perspective I gained about the academy from those many institutions I visited as a consultant became invaluable to me, showing me the importance of affirmatively choosing my own path.
When I saw how different I am from those around me, I could have withdrawn from pursuing a career in academe. I could have selected a different organizational setting altogether, where I would better fit in. But looking back to at least the last decade, I realize now that I wanted to show myself that duct tape and recycled parade-ground streamers, that darkroom, printing press and basic programming skills, and that having raised a thriving family were every bit as resilient and useful as the more typical pathways through academic preparation.
I had something to prove, and I am finally willing to admit it, to reclaim my pathway as my own, on purpose, with pride. Yes, I made choices along the way that caused me to take a very nontraditional pathway into and through the academy. And, yes, those choices I made have narrowed my future opportunities and will exclude me from some institutional types and settings. But I made each decision for a reason, borne not only of pragmatism at the time, but from hooks’s theoretical reason that persists with me today: I am my own woman, a feminist who consistently takes action based on her values and her own self-developed sense of balance and achievement.
Like my sisters in the third wave, I am still hoping for a unifying feminism that allows my own sense of agency to remain situated within the larger framework of continuing to work toward equality for all people. I hope that many of my future colleagues will take courage in pursuing their own pathways, knowing that different as their path may be, it is theirs and theirs alone to claim. Our academies are only made stronger by the many diverse voices and stories we bring to these communities of inquiry and accomplishment.
Claudine Keenan is mom to Erica, Jack III and Bethann, life partner to Jack Jr., and dean of education at Stockton University in New Jersey. This article has been adapted from Women in the Academy: Learning From Our Diverse Career Pathways, published by Lexington Books.
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