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I am an impostor. Here is my monster.
Why don’t we talk about it more? The very unsettling feeling of feeling like you don’t belong? That you can’t belong? The feeling of being out of sorts, of questioning where you come from and how well you fit into your new environment?
This environment is one that everyone has told you is necessary for your success, one you should be “grateful” for, one you “shouldn’t take for granted.” But feeling like an impostor in college is something that virtually all of us feel at some point. As a professor, I, too, have felt and continue to feel it. As a woman, I feel it more. As a mother who can never balance the pressures of motherhood and academe, I feel it heavy upon the pit of my stomach every day. As someone who grew up poor, I feel it. As an immigrant, I feel it. Within this new terrifying version of America, I feel it even more.
However, teaching is not about me grappling with things -- it is about my students developing their minds and ideas about the world. Talking to students about their backgrounds is important. Talking about our own backgrounds is also important, as is teaching courses that reflect students’ experiences and histories, whether those histories are tied to race, gender, class and/or culture. I am one of the lucky ones who get to teach college students for a living. I teach classes on human rights and social justice in the Americas, and I am grateful for each single student and every class I have ever taught. I love my job and am in awe of what I learn from my students each day.
But I have noticed, over the years, that students come to class with a draining guest: their own impostor monster. I have sensed their impostor monsters hovering over every discussion. I have witnessed their monsters hanging on to their every word, their every pose -- I have watched these monsters forcefully silence them.
Meeting the Monsters
So instead of pretending our monsters do not exist, I recently decided to have my students meet their monsters. On the first day of class, I asked students to draw their impostor monster on the back of a beautifully printed construction paper. I explained to them that the beautiful side is the side we perform to the world at large, but the blank canvas on the back is where our impostor monster lies in judgment. I asked them to turn to the blank side and draw their impostor monster for five minutes.
I thought I would get a plethora of funny images -- some serious, some comical, some perhaps even whimsical. Considering that perhaps not every student had feelings of impostor-hood as defined as my own, I thought some would not take it seriously. What I got instead were careful representations of very real, frightening monsters. Some monsters had three eyes. Others were family members whom students made into red-eyed ghosts. Others were ugly self-portraits of the students themselves. What stood out to me from their monsters is that each student had one and that everyone took the drawing activity seriously. While some were abstract, not one was funny, whimsical or kind.
I designated the entire first day to discussing these monsters, introducing them to the class and understanding what impostor syndrome is within the particular environment of a college campus. I also asked the students to begin to interpret how race, class and gender dynamics and inequalities could contribute to an exacerbated impostor syndrome. After our discussion, I had each student place their monster in the middle of the table. I told them that for each class, they had to remember to leave their monster outside the room. I then collected their monsters and, halfway into the course of the semester, I still brought them all to each class session, placing them in the center of the table. And I can honestly say the presence of the monsters on the table affects the students’ ability to trust their voices and to empower their analytical thought process.
Within Trump’s America, the feelings of impostor syndrome have been exacerbated. The hateful anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-brown, anti-woman, anti-everything-non-Anglo rhetoric has been slowly siphoned to the new generation of students who are, beyond a doubt, paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing. This terror has left many students feeling like they are unable to piece together the source of their terror, and thus the source of their intellectual reasoning.
My classes always involve in-depth discussions on gender, race and class. These classes necessitate intellectual processing, active learning and, most important, a willingness to respectfully engage in many conversations on difficult and often uncomfortable topics about regions of the world that most students are quite unfamiliar with. To ensure that these discussions happen within a productive and safe environment, I spend a significant amount of energy ensuring that my students are comfortable to speak their mind and respectful when they do so. The impostor monster is one method I have developed that enables students to get to know one another closely on the first day by acknowledging, recognizing and respecting the levels of diversity within our particular class.
We in higher education spend so much time trying to approach diversity by figuring out how to best describe it as a phenomenon. We should stop trying to determine how to put it into words and instead spend our energy putting it into practice. Diversity is best approached through honesty, transparency and ritual mindfulness.
The impostor monster is our ritual, our meditative practice, a lesson in mindfulness each time they come out of my bag and find their way into the middle of our first-year seminar table. I am especially concerned about the freshmen who have come to this small liberal arts college that I teach at from all different parts, all different backgrounds and preparations. Some have been at boarding school for the last four years and have undergone something akin to interval training for the mind, an intense marathon-like preparation for the top grades. Others are first-generation students who have told me how much they feel like they don’t belong here or anywhere, questioning if they made the right decision to go to college at all. Others are students of color who are having a hard time seeing themselves reflected in course readings, on the campus and especially within the predominately white environment of the small town in New England they newly inhabit.
The greatest benefit of opening up this discussion is that it empowers an empathetic and respectful relationship between you and your students. I recommend opening up this discussion with your students this semester (it is never too late) on what the impostor syndrome is, how you yourself have felt it and continue to do so, and how you expect your students to address the monsters in the room while also taking steps away from them.
The monsters are there -- and sadly, for some of us, they will be there permanently, lurking in shadows cast by our gender, our ethnicity, our race and even our socioeconomic fragility. But a mindful awareness, similar to that established within a meditative practice, can make those monsters lose their grasp on our voices and, more important, the voices of our students in this new generation.