What happens when we re-think ‘imposter syndrome’ in academic labor as a public feeling? What can imposter syndrome tell us about who gets to know what, about what, and how? In this chapter, I present a short piece of auto-ethnographic fiction, about the feelings associated with imposter syndrome in the particular context of feminist academia and early career academic work. Imposter syndrome—sensations of not belonging; feeling that one’s competence and success are fundamentally fraudulent and inauthentic; the conviction of having somehow ‘tricked’ students, colleagues, peer reviewers, and publishers; and the fear that it is only a matter of time before this is discovered—is popularly understood as an individual—private—problem of faulty self-esteem. However, this chapter draws on Cvetkovich (SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly, 106(3), 459–468, 2007; Cvetkovich, Depression: A public feeling. London: Duke University Press, 2012) to argue instead that imposter syndrome is a ‘public feeling’ in higher education (HE). Building upon precedents in feminist sociologies of emotion, and queer affect studies, re-thinking imposter syndrome as a public feeling has three elements: (1) situating the affective landscape of imposterism in socio-political context; how is feeling like an imposter marked by intersections of class, gender, ‘race’ and ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and factors including caring responsibilities, being of the first familial generation to enter HE? (2) analyzing feelings of imposterism as something like a ‘diagnostic of power’ (Abu-Lughod, 1990) and asking what such feelings can tell us about the structure and governance of increasingly neo-liberal, marketised HEIs, and about power relationships in knowledge production; (3) understanding imposter syndrome not as an individual problem to be overcome, but rather as a resource for political action and site of agency, as early career academics transition to employment in a sector increasingly characterized by casualization, precarity, and ‘entrepreneurial’ competition.
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I’ve used quotation marks—scare quotes—around ‘imposter’ syndrome in most of this text. I think that conceptualizing the feelings associated with imposterism as a syndrome carries precisely the individualizing and pathologizing connotations that public feelings seek to trouble and undo. However, I’ve used this term throughout the chapter, alongside attempts to unsettle and dislodge the implication that feeling like an imposter is an individual—or private—problem.
The Research Excellence Framework is a joint undertaking of the UK government Department for Employment and Learning and the higher education funding councils of England, Wales, and Scotland. The REF describes itself as ‘the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions’; the first set of results were published in 2014, ranking research ‘outputs’, ‘impacts’, and ‘environment’ on a one- to four-star rating system (see REF 2014). The Teaching Excellence Framework, recently introduced by the UK government, ‘aims to recognize and reward excellent learning and teaching’ and is being implemented in England via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (see TEF 2017).
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Feeling like an imposter has often involved the poisonous suspicion that the generous support, encouragement, and mentorship of colleagues and friends must come from a place of pity, people are helping me because they feel so sorry for me and can clearly see how hopeless I am! I say poisonous because this does a toxic disservice to the generosity, work, and emotional labor that has absolutely made it possible for me to carry on working in academia. So many thanks to Yvette Taylor and Kinneret Lahad for editing this collection and for all your encouragement and mentorship besides. Thanks to the University of Edinburgh Sociology 2016 New Directions conference for the chance to present—and very helpfully discuss—nascent ideas on this topic, and in particular to Karen Gregory for insightful comments. Similar thanks to the Queen Margaret University Public Sociology Seminar Series for extremely helpful discussion of this paper, particularly to Eurig Scandrett for insights in relation to meritocracy and accountability, and with the Centre for Applied Social Science for funds to present this work at the 2017 British Sociological Association conference. Thanks to Maria do Mar Pereira for really incisive and generous discussion at this event. Endless thanks to Darcy, Hilary, Vic, Jo, Kathleen, Órla, and Lena for existing and talking with me about these, and many other, challenges in feminist academic work.
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Breeze, M. (2018). Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling. In: Taylor, Y., Lahad, K. (eds) Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University. Palgrave Studies in Gender and Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64224-6_9
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Online ISBN: 978-3-319-64224-6