Sunday, July 7, 2013

CM Flashback: A Big Thirsty About Being Real.... [2 Years Ago Today.]

Watson from Wilmington With this Week's Big Thirsty. How Real Are You At Work?

I'm in my first real teaching position. I had bounced around adjuncting for 3 years after I finished my doctorate, but I landed at a nice place last year.

The problem is, I feel like an actor, a fraud. Of course we all do a little of the Prufrock thing, preparing a "face to meet the faces [we] meet," but my academic self is really not much like who I am in real life. (Even my TV watching reality varies from what I say I watch and don't watch.)

I feel dumb at work. I act as if I'm above certain discussions because I don't know enough about the content to weigh in reasonably. I evade certain colleagues because I'm afraid they know more than I do about even my own specialty - which I must tell you, is not especially hot, but that is often taught in my field.

When I leave campus each day, and head for rest with real world pals, cans of beer, and trash TV, I feel as though a weight has been lifted off me. I like my students and the teaching. But I put on such a show for the "adults" at my college, that I'm simply not showing them the "real" me.

Q: Am I alone in this?


  1. I've been doing this job for almost 30 years and I've always felt like an outsider in some elemental way, even when I had tenured spots.

    I think it comes down to your personality. There are some folks who are just not very academic. I'm one of them. I do many academic things, obviously, but I check out of work easily at the end of the day or project, whatever.

    I love teaching. I say meh to most of the administrative stuff I've done over the years. And when the work day is done, I'm just about my own life away from campus, wife, etc.

    I've had some colleagues like myself over the years, who have a professorial persona to wear on campus. But a lot of the folks I've worked with are the same at school and away.

  2. In my real life, I accepted the fact that I'm different, strange, and will probably be thought of as nuts, but won't change who I am a long time ago. In my academic life, I simply don't care, I wear video game and scifi t-shirts with blazers, I compare neurons to spaceships (specifically those in Babylon 5), and play nerdcore hip hop in class alongside Journey. I'm not saying its easy to get the point where you don't care, just that I've been there for a while, and honestly, sometimes I still feel clearly out of the loop and can't weigh in on many known topics. However, I never feel fake, and I've got my own thing going.

    As for your speciality, I vote for what I tell my students about pronunciation in biology,if you do it confidently, it's correct. No one really knows it all, so just act like it anyway.

  3. I don't have to act at work. I'm a pain in the ass there and a pain in the ass everywhere else.

    But yes, I think the fraud thing has been covered on this blog before. I've stood alongside people from my field and have thought, "Is what they're talking about the same thing I teach?"

  4. Teaching can be like any other job in this respect; you bring to and set forth before your colleagues and students that part of you relevant to the task at-hand. As all-consuming as the academic life can be to some, it need not be; it is perfectly acceptable to act differently in your job than you do at home or with friends. But this is far from unique to academic positions- in fact, I think academics might be one of the few groups where you'll find people who don't expect such a distinction.

  5. Statistically, it's more likely than not that your feelings of inadequacy about your knowledge of your field are deluded - a large, large number of people believe that they are "faking it" and actually par for their supposed level of expertise. You're probably fine. I mean, maybe you're not - presumably there have to be SOME people who really ARE underqualified for their jobs, ceteris paribus, you're safe assuming otherwise.

    That said, part of the point of a collegium of scholars is to learn from each other. If you don't interact with your colleagues, especially with regard to your specialty, you're placing your fear of being embarrassed ahead of your desire to actually, you know, be good at your job. And that is kind of shitty.

    As for this false front you have, it's good to be professional - you don't need to talk to your colleagues like you talk to your friends, because those are separate groups. But it's probably not good to have this whole fake "academic" persona. As long as you keep up that front, you're only feeding your sense that you - the real you - doesn't belong in academia, and doing nothing to FIX the problem.

    Of course, maybe those last two points are connected. You say you avoid your colleagues - maybe they like the same trashy TV you do! At my last job, three of the smartest people there were gigantic "Simpsons" fans, and most conversations even on academic matters eventually took a detour through Springfield. The senior person in my specialty liked gangsta rap. Lots of academics like "trash TV." Maybe the fact that you feel you have to pretend you DON'T in order to feel "real" is because you AREN'T interacting with your colleagues very much?

  6. For better or for worse, I'm pretty real at work (my family role is "the one with no tact," and, even allowing for the higher tact-expectations of females by the parent who bestowed that label (my father), there's some truth to that). The moments I can't fit into the conversation are far more likely to involve pop culture/sports references than academic ones (I'm a bit bewildered by theoretical-jargon-heavy conversations sometimes, but not because I don't understand them; I just don't quite understand the pleasure of using jargon where simpler terms are available, and the technical term isn't really needed for precision or other legitimate purposes). And of course there's also the problem of being marginal because I'm not tenure-track; I feel fully accepted by my tenure-track colleagues, but they *don't* like to be reminded of the differences in our teaching loads, pay, opportunities for leave, etc., etc. The part of me that wants to say, explicitly or more allusively, "I respect your work, but I really don't think you deserve to be paid half again as much as I am, especially given the similarity in our degrees and amount of experience," is the part I feel the most need to hide.

    1. I'm a lecturer and I teach 3x as many classes as most of my tenure/tenure track colleagues, and I've been teaching those classes for 10 years. I also do research (not as much as I would like/should, and definitely not as much as they do, obviously, but that's mainly because of the 3x heavier teaching load), I participate in departmental outreach activities, and I serve on committees. And I get paid approximately half of what my tenured colleagues get. I feel completely accepted and respected by them, but they seem to get really uncomfortable when they are reminded of the differences in our levels of support from the university, particularly monetarily and in terms of institutional respect.

  7. Psychologists have a name for what you have. It's called impostor syndrome. It's very common among academics: I'd estimate that more than half of them get it. So no, you're not alone.

    Keith Olbermann, of all people, says he gets impostor syndrome. He says it's why he's such a notoriously difficult person to work with. I find that many people who get impostor syndrome are easy to work with, so your mileage may vary.

    I'm one of the probable minority of academics who don't get impostor syndrome. I wanted---ached, bled, desperately!---to be an astronomer since I was five years old. So I don't get it. What my students and colleagues see is very much what they get. A cynic might call this having narrow interests or lacking depth. I prefer to think of it of singleness of purpose.

    It made me easy to exploit when I was a junior, untenured astronomer, and more than one old boss saw it and took advantage of it. If I hadn't become an astronomer, I probably would have wound up as a frustrated person. I didn't say it was healthy, it's just what I do.

    And yes, in real life, I am academic as hell. This might have something to do with my Dad having been a teacher, and having been very proud of it. As a consequence, he didn't handle the '60s well: often, the shameless irresponsibility, laziness, and incompetence of modern students make me thank God my Dad didn't live to see what academia has come to. (As you can see, however, I'm not so academic to be above ending a sentence with a preposition.)

    Another psychological syndrome common among faculty who finally get good jobs after years of bouncing around is survivor's guilt. I did get that shortly after getting my tenure-track job. Don't worry, academia will spring abominations on you so quickly, you won't have it long. I didn't get survivor's guilt after tenure, because I was too shell-shocked: it took me over a year to get over that. Congrats on the new job!

    1. P.S. My field is astrophysics, for crying out loud. How real is anything I do supposed to be? Aside from grading, of course.

  8. I'm taller at home. My wife lifts my spirits and I straighten my spin for her. It's our thing.

    But, yeah, impostor. Sure, at work. I have the work face, the work demeanor. I do tend to act more excited about MOVING THE UNIVERSITY FORWARD even though I know it's a hopeless and futile task. (Plus, I'm really only interested in my own classes, not the whole freaking institution.)