Friday, July 08, 2022

There's imposter syndrome, and then there are imposters

 I've been fascinated recently with this article about a writer on the show Grey's Anatomy, who (necessary disclaimer--"allegedly") fabricated a cancer diagnosis and stole other people's experiences as her own as fodder for the show. Link to  Vanity Fair. 

We talk a lot about imposter syndrome--the idea that we're not deserving of the job we have, not worthy to be where we are in our careers, etc. But this is different; it's about an actual imposter, or maybe just someone who lies creatively.

I have only met one of these people in my life (that I know of), but it was memorable. Bear in mind that this happened a long time ago, pre-internet, at a small school that I wasn't teaching at (let's call it Academia U); she wasn't even in the humanities. But I knew her, and we were friends. Let's call her X. 

X had graduated from a top program, which gave her star power to me and to everyone in her department. She had written (co-written) the paper on a particular phenomenon. People sought her out. She was invited to keynote at more than one prestigious conference. Pre-WWW, who could check?

 She frequently told Academia U that it was lucky to get her, and, in fact, would regularly threaten to leave unless her salary was raised. She had job offers, she said. Academia U came through with a raise every time. 

But there was an odd problem when she went up for tenure: the school couldn't locate the publications that she claimed, beyond the famous co-authored one. Well, that was easy. She had mailed a disk with her manuscript (pre-internet, remember), and the disk was corrupted, but it was just about to be published. On another, the editor had gone on vacation and had just neglected to send the final copy to the printers. On another, some editorial intern had made a mistake that delayed publication. All just missteps.

 She had the worst luck, those of us who knew her agreed. All the editors apparently sent letters saying that yes, these were fabulous articles that would be published momentarily. That's not unreasonable: a letter on letterhead saying that a book or article is about to be published often appears in a tenure file. It's not clear to me whether the tenure process at that school in those days required outside reviewers or whether they accepted her manuscript versions (soon to be published, except for her accursed luck) as publications, but she got tenure & promotion.

But there was something else: for me, her dates didn't add up. One time when I went to lunch with her, during which she told me I could be as successful as herself --well, not as successful, but successful for the kind of person I was, I started to get uneasy. The prestigious conference in X city--wasn't that at the same time that she had said she had gone to visit a family member in city Y? If a disk was corrupted, why not send another one? Why wasn't her name showing up in the article index for her discipline, except for that one study? (Yes, I am petty. After that humiliating lunch, I went to the library and checked.) There were other inconsistencies, but when I called her on them later, she brushed them away and always had a ready answer.

Things came to a head when an official document appeared to someone official to have been forged. What! No, X would not do that, we agreed. Stupid government! They must have made a mistake. 

There was no publicity, and no court proceedings. But she quietly left Academia U for another academic job shortly after that. 

I don't know if there's a moral to this story, except that I'm now amazed that it took me so long to add 1 + 1 and get 2 out of it. Is it gullibility, naivete, or stupidity? Or is it simply trust that people are who they say they are and do what they say they do? I also recall being kind of impressed that she could keep so many stories straight for so long.

Do you suppose that this happens in academia more frequently than we think it does? Have you ever encountered an imposter or creative liar?

Friday, June 03, 2022

Service Tennis, or how to put that ball right back across the net

 As new academics, we're taught (or do we just internalize?) the need to make things right.

Or maybe this: as women who are new academics, we're taught (or do we internalize?) the need to make things right. 

  • Draft of some report or document not right? Let me get right on that and rewrite it so that it sparkles, thinking through and addressing its conceptual problems as I do so.
  • Committee work? Sure, I can volunteer.
  • Take notes? No problem.
  • Write a book review? Let me at it.
  • Review an article or book manuscript? Sure, why not? 

But possibly inspired by some of the feelings that the article Maya recommended in the comments of the last post and also by rereading a few of my self-directed come to Jesus talks about doing too much service, this year has brought a change.

  • Draft of some report or document not right? Well, it's a collective draft. I fix what I can't live with and figure "many hands make light work" for correcting the rest. Could I make it better by spending more hours on it? Yes. Should I make it better by spending more hours on it? That's the real question.
  • Committee work? Is this a committee that has some actual use for what I bring to the table, or am I warming a chair? If the latter, bye.
  • Take notes? Yes, if no one else steps up. I've done enough volunteering to do this for an academic lifetime. Let's start acting as if this takes a village, which it does, and the same people don't have to do this always.
  • Write a book review? Never again, honestly. Marley's ghost is still haunting me, and this is probably the last one I will volunteer to do. I'd rather recommend a more junior scholar who can benefit from the experience, and it's better for them, too.
    • Also, what's with the new trend of sending ebooks or a link where you have to sign up for a site, etc., to get the book on a time-limited basis? Ninety percent of the value to you as a scholar doing a book review is that you get to read and have a copy of the actual book. The last thing I need is more hours of screen reading where it's tricky to mark up the copy with points you'd like to make.
  • Review an article or book manuscript? It depends. Is this helpful in terms of alerting me to new trends in research as well as being a service to the profession? A few years ago, an insidious voice started inserting itself whenever I reviewed something. You could be writing right now, it would say. You only have X number of productive hours in a day. Is this how you want to spend your time? This benefits others, which is laudable. Does it benefit you, as well? Isn't that also a laudable goal? 

I thought of this today when I received back a draft of something I'd sent to a committee, of which the point person mentioned that some changes would be good and that the other point person was on vacation. In the old days--and this was my first impulse--I'd have spent time making the changes and then sent it back.

Today, I lobbed it right back across the net and said "send it back to me once you've made the changes. Have a great day!"

 If you think of all this as your responsibility, it sounds selfish.

If you think of it as a collaborative game, you can hit that ball right back across the net and see it as a win for everyone.

Edited to add: see “Tips to Reclaim Your Time” by Leslie K. Wang over at IHE.


Monday, May 16, 2022

NYT: "My College Students are Not Okay" by Jonathan Malesic

 First, here's the article:

 The TL;dr on this is that students are tired--exhausted, even--and disengaged. When they go to class, they won't speak up, as if they're watching you on Zoom. 

Based on an N of 1 (me) over the past two years, I agree on some things Malesic's saying, but not all.  

  • First of all, we need to separate out Zoom classes, in-person classes, and designed-to-be-online and asynchronous classes. These are different animals. I only taught a few Zoom classes, and they seemed to work pretty well. 
  • The in-person classes? I guess I didn't post a lot about them, but honestly, they were great. We wore masks but it worked fine (worked a treat, as the Brits say). Was it their energy, being glad to be back, that made the energy in that classroom? Was it partly me (ditto)? Was it the approximately 1.5 times the effort that I put into those classes? More effort doesn't always result in a better class experience (shudders in memories of classes past), but maybe this time it helped?
  • Online classes: these take 2 x the effort of an in-person class, and this semester especially I'd estimate that my time was spent about 80% on teaching and the remaining 10% each on research and service. This isn't ideal and is definitely not what my contract calls for, but it felt hugely necessary. Some thoughts: 
    • In an in-person class, you know how sometimes you feel as though you are emotionally lifting them, encouraging them to speak, etc. and are wiped out at the end of the class, and at other times you might be a little tired or whatever but their energy helps you? This semester, I poured so much energy and time into teaching that it wore me out--but then they started giving back, even though it was an online class--more & better responses, coming to office hours (via Zoom), etc. 
    • And they deserve the credit for coming through so well--they really do. To borrow a piece from Bardiac's post, they really did exceed expectations, by and large; those weren't "well, it's COVID so it's an A" grades at all. They know what the expectations for writing are, and some of them complain mightily about having to write in complete sentences, etc., at first. It's a kind of "Do you know who I am?" attitude that sometimes afflicts seniors and majors who claim they haven't been called to account for their writing before, but then they learn and it's a pleasure to see the change for the better.
    • While it's doubtless true, as some of Malesic's interviewees say, that you can't teach some courses online (hello, lab science!), I don't teach lab science and would say that some things can be taught & discussed just fine online. I'd say in any given class about 5-10% were "disengaged" in Malesic's sense.
    • I just looked at course evals, and the students seem to have gotten a lot out of the classes, so there's that. 

But yes, to Malesic's point: more requests for extensions than usual, etc. do point to their being exhausted and burned out. 

And so are we, aren't we?

Monday, May 09, 2022

The teacher I want to be

 First of all, I do love teaching. 

Second, I believe in flexibility, and my syllabus has all kinds of alternative assignments, escape clauses, and get out of jail free extensions built into it--all stated right up front, with no need to have class privilege to know that they're available. I talk about them. They're in the syllabus. I email students about them, if they seem not to know.

For a lot of years--decades, even--this has been enough. If a student tries, it's hard not to succeed if they put any effort at all into it, because there's always another way. They may not get the grade that they think their writing deserves, because they insist that I'm the only teacher who's ever told them about picayune details like writing in complete sentences; however, they usually come around once we've met for a few times and gone over their papers. But in my classes, there other ways to succeed.

Yet it's been a tough semester for us all. Contra academic conferences, which are so over COVID, my students are getting sick regularly despite being vaxxed, and I've made a lot of allowances for that. I've responded to emails on weekends. I've been available. I've given feedback. I've met with them. I've notified them through the course space if they didn't turn in papers (online classes--you kind of have to do this). I have put in more hours on teaching this semester than in any recent semester I can remember.

And now, a minute and a half before grades are due, students who haven't checked into the course space for literally months want to turn in assignments that they had ignored for said months. Or they've skipped a bunch of assignments but are emailing "I need an A." Or they start rules-lawyering over some minor point, which is hard to do given the really specific details in the syllabus. Or “I have a lot of work in my other [implied: more important] classes and am handing this in late.”

And with all the "take it easy on your students; COVID, etc." directives being issued, it's hard to say no without seeming like a monster.

It's probably for this reason that I'm finding this really dispiriting, even though I know I shouldn't take it personally. It's like some kind of fall from grace, or a fall from the kind of teacher I thought I was and want to be. This didn't happen in the Before Times, or happen as much, and it didn't bother me when it did because I could just point to the numbers. 

I don't want to be that tough old rounder who rejoices in saying no, but it's getting harder to keep that store of goodwill and enthusiasm flowing and to be the kind of teacher I want to be.

Monday, April 18, 2022

How long is this semester? Groundhog Day long, that's what.

  • Like a good portion of the rest of the country, Northern Clime is getting snow. In April. Every day. Snow. What is it Bill Murray says? "It's going to be cold, and it's going to be gray, and it's going to last for the rest of your life." Yeah, what he said. 
  • Tulips are coming up, but they're saying "nuh-uh, not going to bloom when we're just going to freeze to death." 
  • I am playing whack-a-mole with our LMS. When I see that someone's turned in one of the minor full-credit assignments, I go in and give it comments immediately, just so I can see it disappear from the ever-lengthening sidebar list of things to grade. 
  • I gave a conference paper (the conference had sensibly moved online), and rediscovered (1) how stressful it is and (2) the feeling of giddy elation when it's over. It's the old story of hitting yourself in the head: it feels so good when it stops. 
  • The mask thing is going pretty well, though. Most places I go--that is, the grocery store--there's a good third of the people who are masked. If you think about it, how much attention did we pay to people's faces before the pandemic? Not a lot, and it's the same now; I barely look at them and vice versa. Nobody's said anything to me about it, and everyone seems pretty chill. 
  • I'm ready if someone does say something, though. Here's my projected response: "Merry Christmas!" Cheerful enough to be inoffensive, and strange enough to make them give me a wide berth in case I am unhinged, and, in this part of the country, armed. 
  • It's hard to get back to writing and thinking, although the conference paper proved that I could do it, so I guess it's time to get back to it. 
  • Updated to add: a Florida judge just voided the mask mandate on planes for bonkers reasons ("masks don't do anything"). This is bad for so many reasons (children, immunocompromised people, and, oh, by the way, the rest of us who don't want to get any flavor of COVID). From an academic perspective, people on Twitter are now fretting about flying to conferences. Not to harp on the same old idea, but you know how you can't get COVID if you're at a conference? Through a Zoom screen. We are all supposed to be throwing praise parades for the in-person conferences, but this is a risk that just got riskier, not that anyone is paying attention.
  • Another update: “who needs a mask? Covid is over completely, so definitely not me” from Megan McArdle ( ) conservative columnist and author of helpful advice like “if you’re not rich, perhaps you should consult your broker” and “old people get poor and die—get over it”

Friday, April 08, 2022

Random Bullets of April


  •  COVID, now with new and improved Omicron 2.0, is still flourishing here and elsewhere. British Airways had their flight crews take off masks, and oh, look, their COVID rates rose.  I'm still wearing a mask, and at least a third of the people I see at the grocery store are, too. 
  • I'm sure you all saw how UCLA posted a job offering with all the usual requirements, including 5 references, for a professorship for which you would be paid . . . nothing. This was in the sciences, and it probably had something to do with teaching for glory--er, faculty affiliation--when you already make lots of $ on grants, but still. Are we there yet at the English Department of the Future
  •  Speaking of fancy schools doing dubious things, if you haven't read Rachel Aviv's New Yorker investigation of how U Penn treated one of its students, Mackenzie Fierceton,  go read it; it's excellent. This follows a Chronicle of Higher Ed account that takes a skeptical view of her story; Aviv's account has a more complete and sympathetic version.
  • Twitter is doing its usual blend of genuinely useful information and theory and contemporary culture fight-fests over stuff where I have no idea what they're talking about. 
  • In other news, I now believe that people should be required to get signed permission slips from all their neighbors before they put up outdoor wind chimes. 
  • Friday night, and still grading--how about you? It's that time of year when grading is kind of like bailing out a leaky rowboat: just when you think you've got one hole plugged up and the water in the boat goes down, another one springs up. 

Now, I'm not complaining about the fact of having to grade. They're our students, and they deserve to have comments. I've never learned the trick of having them learn to love grades that are simply checks on a rubric, even though I've caved in and made some beautiful rubrics this semester. The comments help them, if they read them, and that's something I can't control. 

It's the time  that grading takes. I just don't understand how it can take so much time, even with all my little timer tricks. It just . . . does. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Random bullets of "March? Already?"


    First, some writing house inspiration, courtesy of Wendell "I don't need a computer" Berry: "Hidden in the woods on a slope above the Kentucky River, just south of the Ohio border, is a twelve-by-sixteen-foot cabin with a long front porch.. . .The camp has no plumbing or electricity. Half a dozen well-sharpened pencils were lined up on the worktable, alongside small stacks of paper. On top of one stack was a note Berry had made, and crossed out, about Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” Above a small safe, curling photographs were taped to a wall: Wallace Stegner, Ernest Gaines, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, Thomas Merton." My writing house also is 12 x 16, so Wendell and I are obviously destined to be famous authors together. 
  • So much teaching. So much grading. So much time spent on both.  I want to channel Winston Churchill here: "Never in the history of mankind has so much time been spent by one person in the attempt to create a resource appreciated by so few." Written lectures, video lectures, responding to their posts, grading: I thought I had made it up that online teaching takes 2x as much work as in-person, but this year, on an N of 1 (me), I can confirm that it does.
  •  In an extremely ill-advised moment, even after vowing never to do another one, I said I would do a book review last year. The book is good, but very, very, very long. I read it last summer and never wrote it up, with the result that I now have to read it again to write the review. Spouse says I have been dragging it around with me for a year like Marley's chains in "A Christmas Carol," and he's not wrong. 
  • Now that everything's going back to maskless in-person events (even with Omicron 2.0 peeking around the corner), it's back to the irritating calculus of whether to burn an entire day traveling to campus and getting no work done to support a colleague doing a presentation. There were two presentations today I would have happily attended if they were on Zoom. They were in person, and I had a lot of work to do (travel burns the whole day), so I missed both of them. 
  • Gwinne has an interesting post about the amount of work we do. I'd break that down even further into categories:
    • Work that we are paid to do that's interesting but takes far too much time to do it right (teaching). 
    • Work that's invisible and that no one cares about unless it doesn't get done (service, administration).
    • Work that we want to do in terms of research but that gets pushed out by #1 & #2.
    • Work that we at some point agreed to do and that we can't seem get done, like Marley's chains up there. 
    • Work that we are harried into on someone else's schedule because however much lip service they pay to things being collaborative, etc., the only schedule they actually pay attention to is their own. 
  • I'm still wearing a mask to the grocery store & everything, because why not? No one seems to mind.
 And with that I will close for now, leaving you with these words: "“I wear the chain I forged in life  . . . I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”