Tag Archives: graduate school

Imposter Syndrome and Class in Academia

imposter photo
Photo by thewikiman

I ran into a blog post, “The Coding of ‘White Trash’ in Academia” on The Establishment (originally published in Auntie Bellum Magazine)—I think a friend must have shared it on Facebook—that really resonated with me. I tweeted out a link, and because I have Twitter and Facebook linked, I also shared it with Facebook friends. One of my friends, Scott O’Neil, who is a doctoral candidate in Renaissance Drama and Literature at the University of Rochester, commented on my post with a link to his first blog post.

What Holly Genovese and Scott O’Neil describe in these two posts is something I have wrestled with myself. I think a lot of women have dealt with “imposter syndrome,” as it has been noted to be especially prevalent in high-achieving women. I can remember being in my honors 9th grade English class and feeling like I was quite literally the dumbest person in the room. I understand now that I wasn’t, but I think it was one of the first times I felt like I didn’t belong somewhere in school. I loved school. I always knew I would be a teacher one day. School was a place I felt safe. Teachers liked me. I won awards for everything from citizenship to academics. I was good at school. Until that honors English class. I should back up and say that my achievement in that class was fine. I just didn’t feel as smart as the other students. I understand now that what I was feeling for the first time was that sense of being an outsider in a place where I had previously thought I belonged. They might not have meant to (or maybe they did), but the other students in my classes sometimes contributed to that feeling.

When I took the SAT, I checked the box to receive mail from colleges, and a few colleges jumped out at me through their thick brochures full of possibilities I had never considered. However, I discovered that cost was a factor, and I would need to settle on a school in my home state so that I wouldn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. I had started an application to Emerson College in Boston, but I abandoned in despair, realizing it was pointless to finish it and polish that piece of writing they had requested. I didn’t know what to do, and time was running out. I wound up applying to a community college so I could spend a year figuring it out. I knew I wanted to go away to school if I could. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and college counseling at my large public high school was non-existent. I settled on UGA when their College of Education came recruiting at my community college. I was lucky because UGA happens to have a great education school, and their secondary education programs have particularly been singled out for praise.

When it came time to settle on a master’s program, I was equally confused. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, and I also couldn’t quit work as my family depended on my income. And for years, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study. English? Library Science? When technology integration became an important issue, I knew I had found my calling, and I found a program at Virginia Tech. I had to take more classes than my advisor recommended because I couldn’t afford to go to school without student loans, and in order to qualify for loans, I needed to attend at least half time.

I always went to public school, and my college years have been spent at large, public universities.  In that respect, I am not a lot different from Holly Genovese or Scott O’Neil, who described what he termed “an undercurrent of class-based assumption at top universities.” There is this notion that certain people don’t really belong, and many assumptions are made about students—graduate students in particular, I think—at these schools. Namely, that they went to elite colleges and had private school education. While such assumptions are certainly made at the college level, I would argue they are also made in the independent school world where I work.

On a few occasions, I have noticed a sort of surprise on the part of colleagues, students, and parents upon the awkward realization that I am a product of public schools and public universities and teaching at a private school. On one occasion, a student of mine told a group of students with whom we were working in Israel that she went to our school because the local public schools were not good. Actually, this statement was not true—the public schools in our North Fulton County, Georgia home were quite good—and she either didn’t know or had forgotten that my own children went to those schools. I felt shamed by my own student.

I would argue that this notion of feeling too “low class” to belong is similar to feelings of loneliness that women in fields dominated by men or that people of color in places dominated by white people feel. However, bundled up inside of it in many cases is the fact that many working class students are white and in some cases also male, so there is a dose of privilege that makes it easier to mask those feelings of inadequacy and also makes it easier to achieve and to “hide” one’s background. Scott describes assumptions that people make about him based on the fact that he is a white man studying at the University of Rochester. People have made assumptions of me as a white woman teaching at a private prep school, too. These assumptions contribute to the feeling of being an imposter, that I don’t belong. I have begun working on fighting these feelings, but if you read anything about imposter syndrome, let’s just say I’m a textbook example.

You know, it’s funny that in America, we say that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. But we know it’s not exactly true. Our literature reflects it. Just about every high school student reads The Great Gatsby, for instance, and learns that money and race can’t make James Gatz a member of high society. Not really. We used to celebrate Horatio Alger stories and encourage kids to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard. In some ways, it is true that we can work hard and achieve great things, but it can be hard to feel like we deserve to be where we are, and there are ways that society reminds us of where we come from, too. Our backgrounds can be a stumbling block in that we, like other marginalized groups, don’t start out the race in the same place as those privileged folks with private school educations.

I do an activity adapted from Paul Kivel called “Examining Class and Race” when I teach The Great Gatsby. I assign students a character from the novel and ask them to move from the line based on what they know of the character. I choose questions that would work for the characters in the novel. Students are surprised to see that Gatsby is far behind Daisy and Tom and is even behind Nick in terms of his “starting place.” Of course, Myrtle and George are near the back. It displays an interesting visual with regards to class and how class helps some characters and holds others back.

Is this where some of the heartland anger against “liberal elites on the coasts” comes from? Maybe. I am not a sociologist, but it makes some sense to me. I know I felt it all over again upon reading a comment on a post shared by one of my colleagues on Facebook. One of my students, Kaz Grala, just won the NASCAR Truck Series at Daytona. My colleagues and I were all sharing the news on social media. I noticed that someone commented on a colleague’s post in what I believe he felt was a joking way that it must be hard for Kaz to communicate with the NASCAR audience on their level given his educational background. In fact, Kaz and I have discussed this type of code-switching, and I have watched him in interviews. He has it figured out. But man, that remark, not even directed at me—though it felt like it was because I come from that part of the country—really stung. Let’s face it. NASCAR is really popular among people with my background. People like me. And the insinuation that people like me, people with my background, are dumb wasn’t even implied. It was stated outright. No one challenged it, either. It wasn’t my Facebook page, so I left it alone, too.

In many ways I feel like I am straddling two worlds. All anyone who doubted me might need to do to would be to record me talking with my family, particularly my grandmother, who was born to two teenagers in Oklahoma in the middle of the Dust Bowl. She only went to school through the eighth grade and married young herself. I don’t think it’s coincidence that nothing made her prouder than my academic achievements. I was the first person her family to graduate from college. My grandfather went, but he didn’t graduate. Same with my father, though both my parents went to college and graduated after I did. I am only member of our family with a graduate school degree. And is it any wonder I sometimes struggle with feeling like an imposter? One thing I am learning, however, is that I do have a place at the table, even if I sometimes can’t figure out which fork to use.

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Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Crowdsourcing Grades

5 November 2007Karen LaBonte tweeted a link to Cathy Davidson’s post How to Crowdsource Grading. It’s an interesting approach, and something I think could work well in college setting. My grad school program allows students to resubmit work based on feedback, and I have definitely taken advantage of this perk several times.

The trouble I have with it in high school or even younger is the idea of peers being responsible for evaluation. I do peer editing in my classes all the time, but students are not graded on it (aside from simply a check for doing it). I think students should have some choices and some say about their work, but I’m not sure they’re always the best judges (at least high school and younger) of what to assess and how to assess it, so I wouldn’t put the grades in the hands of my own students.

I hate grades. I would do away with them if I could, but my school has them, so the fairest thing I can do is give students various types of assessments that measure what they have learned against my goals for their learning. My feelings about grades are complicated because as a student, I stress out about them. I actually get nervous when I check my grades online. I would do all the work my instructors asked me to do even without grades, and I think I’d be happier just learning rather than stressing about my grades (which I do even though they are good). On the other hand, I know that I am definitely not normal. Would the students do the work if they weren’t graded on it? Depends. I think you can structure an learning experience for students that isn’t graded and still get most students to buy in. The ones that don’t are usually the ones that don’t even with grades.

We recently had a lot of discussions about summer reading with other members of our department and our media specialist. Students must read three (four for AP) books over the summer. One (two for AP) is required. One is chosen from a list. The last is selected from among books the faculty members have chosen to sponsor. Book sponsors lead a discussion about their choices with the students who signed up for their book. Essentially, a fear was expressed that should we not quiz or otherwise formally assess students’ faculty selections aside from the discussion, the students would not read the book. I liked my department chair’s unorthodox response: so they miss a great learning experience. Too bad for them. The person who expressed the fear about students not reading wasn’t satisfied with this response. I added in, “Can’t they just read a book for fun?” It was very clear that this person was worried students would not do anything if a grade was not tied to it.

With college students, you’re working with adults, and while I’m not sure I’d want my grades in the hands of my peers, I could see some type of agreement about what constitutes “A” work being made among students. In my Multimedia Authoring course, one of my peers gave me really poor marks on my project (a difference of at least 9 points out of 50 when compared to the other two evaluators). I think she did it out of spite because when I evaluated her project, I pointed out that nothing in her PowerPoint worked. Wouldn’t you want to know that before it was graded? Or would you be petty because it was pointed out? I digress, but the point is that my instructor evaluated us on our evaluations of others. He docked me a percentage of a point because I gave a criticism in my comments in one area of the rubric, but still gave full points. His reasoning—if there was a problem, it shouldn’t have received full points. Probably true, but he was also a tough (some would say nit-picky) grader. I wouldn’t say nit-picky because I learned a lot from his class, his feedback, and his tough grading. And yes, I have wondered what kind of feedback my peer received for her evaluation of me.

A side note: I am receiving no grades for the major project I’m creating this semester. I’ve worked harder on it than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it won’t be graded hasn’t lessened my motivation. It has freed it. I don’t have to fret about what I might earn on it, so I can just do my best and create a project that I’m proud of.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ccarlstead

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Hey, Stranger

Collatz ConjectureOK, so my friends have reached the point of stopping calling and asking me if I want to hang out. I had a stack of essays—ungraded—shuttling back and forth from school to my house for a month. A month! I am teaching five classes, five different preps. And this is the time of year when it gets busy. When you look at the calendar and say, “Oh, hi, March! I’m still in the Renaissance.” Then I have to give myself permission to still be in the Renaissance because of all the instructional days lost for various reasons, and I have to tell myself it’s OK because it’s an introduction to British literature and not meant to be as comprehensive as a graduate school (or even an undergrad) seminar.

Speaking of grad school, I am also behind in that area. My Educational Research class is proving challenging, but I am learning a great deal, even if my quiz scores don’t show it (the quizzes are another issue altogether). My Multimedia Authoring course is beginning to rank up there with my favorites in the grad school program (Instructional Media, Graphic Design for Multimedia Presentations). I like classes that allow me to create; however, I am concerned that I have bitten off more than I can chew. I want to create a flash game that helps students learn phrases and clauses. I would like it to be similar to the Grammar Ninja game, but I know I’m not knowledgeable enough to make it quite that good, especially graphics-wise. The creator of that game is majoring in Computer Science with a minor in 2-D Art for Games, and I surely don’t have that background.

Still, I have not completely checked out, and I can be found bookmarking links on Diigo and tweeting most days of the week. I don’t always bookmark links I check out. This morning, someone (and I admit I can’t remember who) tweeted this link. I don’t know how to feel about this issue. Sad that the parents were so easily satisfied? Confused as to whether I missed some qualification left out of the article? Angry that my profession is reduced to entertainment and stripped of its seriousness of purposes for the sake of TV? I realize the article is now about six months old, and Danza does seem to have some empathy for the life of a teacher and seems to treat the profession with some reverence and respect. If I’m fair, I have to admit I think he “gets” it about teaching, or at least his blog posts reveal he does (and I’ve only begun taking a look, so your mileage may vary).

What do you think of it?

Update, 4/1: The LA Times has a new story about Danza’s first year teaching.

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The Calm Before the Storm

Somehow it seems appropriate that the very outer bands of Tropical Storm Fay brought some sprinkles and a few gusts of wind today, as this weekend is my last before I begin working on my master’s degree, and it really does feel like the calm before the storm.  Classes start Monday.  I have been so busy this week, and I already feel behind.  I have had to start making to-do lists.  I know some people swear by them, but I haven’t really needed to use them often in the past.  It feels very good to cross items off that list.  I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew — I already feel busy without worrying about my own studies!

I have found blogging to be important for my own teaching practice.  This space helps me be reflective and connect, and after doing it for three years, I have discovered I need it.

I guess blogging needs to have an important position on my to-do list.

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Graduate School

I took a step and applied to Virginia Tech’s online graduate school to earn an Instructional Technology Master of Arts degree.  It looks like a good program, and I can do all of my studying online, which will help me a great deal, as I have small children at home and a full time job to think about.  I have been wanting to do this for a while, but frankly hadn’t found the right program to apply to until recently.  It’s kind of exciting to think that this time next year, I might be a Hokie.  Of course, some of you might say I’m already there (har, har).

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