December 2, 2020

60 pages and a rude gesture


“Fake it ‘til you make it!” This mantra follows many students as they enter tertiary education. This mantra, alongside other misconceptions developed in secondary school, provides poor groundwork for continuing education. Luckily, the crucible of higher education will ‘relieve’ you of these misconceptions quickly or ‘encourage’ you to explore other options. As with many learning experiences, the recipe for undergraduate education can be summarized in three steps:

  1. Find expert
  2. Find learners
  3. Mix well

If you are fortunate enough to have an expert beat the fake out of you, learn from the experience, and apply this knowledge to your academic journey, your odds of success increase. Considering Only 60% of undergraduates finish their degree, you need to utilize every available academic resource to succeed!

As an undergraduate, I studied Shakespeare. This was the usual choice for theater majors at the time (especially in my huge freshman class of 5), as this choice would count for two required credits. In addition, I read Shakespeare in high school to get out of other (less interesting) lit classes. I believed my familiarity with Shakespeare was sufficient, and little effort would be required. In the other corner of the ring, weighing in at a PhD in English, 37 years teaching experience at the graduate and undergraduate level, and the driving force behind the digitization and continuing improvement of the World Shakespeare Bibliography was Dr. James Harner. I had no idea what was going to happen to me (or my GPA) in the following semester. Freshman year, through Dr. Harner beating the fake out of me, receiving a C in Shakespeare through several generous test score curves, and embracing the fear resulting from my lack of knowledge, I was ‘relieved’ of my misconceptions. While this learning experience did increase my chances of academic success, the fear generated throughout this process impacted both my academic and mental thought processes. As we’ll discuss shortly, this had both beneficial and detrimental aspects.

Academic fears can persist beyond the first exposure to expertise, adaptation to new knowledge, and reevaluation of core beliefs (“I can’t skip class AND still pass?”). One manifestation of this persistent academic fear can be ‘imposter syndrome.’ When you suffer from imposter syndrome, you feel unworthy of the praise you receive because you do not believe your personal capabilities or experience merit recognition. The anxiety, stress, and fear of inadequacy build until dealing with your fears seems impossible. Did you notice the word ‘you’ appears in every judgement made by imposter syndrome? Imposter syndrome is a personal attack on you from the most judgmental person in your academic life; YOU!

At its core, imposter syndrome is inaccurate self-assessment (Parkman, 2016). Imposter syndrome appeals to your fear’s authority despite your academic success. In contrast to this assumed legitimacy, studies suggest academic success displays a positive correlation with imposter syndrome in students (Parkman, 2016). Thus, students displaying academic success also displayed symptoms of imposter syndrome. But this is fear, fear never has to make sense. Master Yoda put it best: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering imposter syndrome!” (or something similar).

To discuss fear, imposter syndrome, experts, and their relationships, we must first clarify the meaning of each in context. Fear, in my own graduate studies, manifested through a lack of previous experience with academic writing. Imposter syndrome is the negative self-assessment despite personal capabilities and experience. Experts “have a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.” (Merriam-Webster). Though this sounds adequate as a description of what an expert *should be*, the reality in many cases is more subjective.

As a graduate student, my thesis proposal review was a nerve-wracking experience. A small conference room, three PhDs, and a student who has no idea what was going to happen to him (or his Thesis) following that meeting is a great recipe for fear. I gave a short 15 miunte presentation, handed out a copy of my 15 page proposal text, and answered questions regarding my research leading up to this point. After a short anxiety filled walk (made longer by my anxiety) while they spoke amongst themselves, my committee explained their expectations on my written thesis. Nothing surprising stuck out until we discussed the length of the thesis. “I think you can explain this sufficiently in 60 pages or so…” I nodded in agreement, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.

Two hours later I sat in a local bakery, among a small community of graduate students and my writing mentor. When asked why I was talking to myself, my ramblings were best summarized as, “How can I ever write 60 pages on this?” If I was graduating according to the university’s schedule, I had one month to finish the text of my thesis and apply for a defense date. Fear had evolved into gut-wrenching terror. My colleagues in the bakery laughed, loudly. My ramblings became utter confusion. After management politely asked us to quiet down, because the laughter could be heard across the crowded lunch rush, my colleagues reminded me of our group composition. I was, at the time, working on a Master of Science degree in Architecture. Everyone else in our graduate community was trying to finish a PhD.

My writing mentor, a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, recognized the misconception right away. After explaining to me that my 45 pages of preliminary writing was not a starting point, he went on to explain their use as an expansion point. Rather than pick out useful parts of my writing, I began to see my description of architecture as the data I had collected (i.e., a full chapter of my thesis with adjustments). Now I started analyzing my data in the context of other required parts of a thesis (e.g., data analysis and conclusions), and used that as the springboard for writing. 18 months later, I submitted my thesis. My submission consisted of 73 pages of text with an additional 32 pages of references and appendices. To this day, I occasionally walk up to the table at our bakery “office,” look my mentor (now friend and colleague) in the eye and say, “73 pages.” This is always followed by a rude gesture (always), and the laughter of everyone who knows the story behind it. This is the perfect example of an academic fear, inaccurate self-assessment, and needing experts in different fields to help re-assess my personal capabilities and experience.

This “textbook” example of imposter syndrome, though tempered through an insane amount of work, flood of tears, and countless sleepless nights, followed me beyond graduation. In my previous blog, I mentioned the mutually dependent relationship between failure and success. This acceptance of my academic inadequacy despite my academic success (of students who seek advanced degrees only 60% of graduate students finish a masters level degree) was the failure. Two years passed before success arrived.

When asking for grant money, you will be asked why you need it and why you deserve it. Parents have similar policies regarding car keys and cell phones now, so I’m told. In grant writing the former question manifests as your response to the grant criteria. The second question manifests in a section *within* the grant on research team composition and expertise. When writing my first grant, this section seemed rather bland and formulaic:

“The [title] for this project is [name]. [pronoun] is an expert in [proposal relevant experience]. Central themes to [possessive pronoun] work include [3-7 topics of focused study]. [pronoun] will [duties within proposed project].”

Our Primary Investigator (PI) has a PhD, and experience in qualitative methodology. Our consultant on statistics and methodology also has a PhD, in addition to over two decades experience analyzing statistics. In my early career researcher brain, these two are obviously experts. In contrast, I was here to learn the process. I lacked expertise.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) uses very specific language in certain contexts, and to ensure the best chance of being seen by a human and getting useful feedback you want to mimic that language in the grant proposal. In addition, the qualifications and criteria for serving in each position (e.g., PI, Graduate Research Assistant, Post-Doctoral Researcher) on the research team must be followed to the letter. As I was no longer enrolled in grad school, I was ineligible for the Graduate Research Assistant position. Lacking a PhD, I was also ineligible for the Post-Doctoral Researcher position. In contrast, there were no specific criteria for PIs or Co-PIs. I accepted the position of Co-PI with a bit of hesitation and felt… odd… about the title. This odd feeling went straight past fear and took the express lane to imposter syndrome shortly after.

After examining each team member’s I could fill out the formula for the senior research team. When it came to my own section, required as a Co-PI, I could not get past the word expert. I am not an expert… Somewhere between the thousand-yard stare into my computer screen and realization that I hadn’t eaten, my brain made an important distinction. Architecture is my field of study, with my passion centered on new architectural pedagogy. While I would in no way consider myself the expert on architecture, I am an expert on architecture within the context of my research team. My knowledge of architecture is *more* comprehensive and authoritative in the context of this research team. In addition, while I am not *the* expert on pedagogy, I am *an* expert on architectural pedagogy in the context of this research team. This challenged the fear behind my imposter syndrome and caused it to unravel a little. While my imposter syndrome is likely to stick around (like that nagging feeling that I forgot something when I turned in my thesis paperwork), I have been calling myself an expert ever since.

I am told stubbornness is one of the roots in my family tree. My senior year of undergraduate study confirmed this, as I again took a Shakespeare course under Dr. Harner. In this class a fellow student once asked about expertise regarding Shakespeare. I cannot remember anything about the context of the question, but I can remember Dr. Harner’s response quite clearly. Dr. Harner stated, despite his qualifications and experience, “The only true expert on Shakespeare is the Bard himself.” Years later, I am beginning to see the wisdom in his answer.

The lessons I learned through fear? Being relieved of your misconceptions by an “expert in the field” is a terrifying ordeal, but necessary for academic growth. You will feel imposter syndrome to some degree, this is normal among academics, and contrary to what fear says, is NOT a bad thing! If you have something already written, don’t throw it away, build on it. You don’t have to be *the* expert to be *an* expert. I CAN write 60 pages, and fear deserves a rude gesture!