In an editorial board meeting recently, we were discussing how The Blue Review might attract more submissions from faculty at its home institution, Boise State. One of the journalists on the board suggested we make clear that The Blue Review can offer incredible exposure to professors—after all, one of its pieces attracted more than a million hits over four days last December, and traffic continues to be above average for a fledgling publication.

I had been quiet for much of the meeting—the first time I attend any such gathering. I’m a better listener than I am an eager contributor—but I took that opportunity to share one of the professoriate’s deeper, darker secrets: many of us fear exposure.

Our anxiety about exposure stems largely, I think, from impostor syndrome, the fear that we’ve been getting by to a large extent on others’ failure to notice our own intellectual failings. As researchers and scholars, we’re in an excellent position to know the magnitude of what it is we don’t know, and many of us are worried someday—perhaps today!—someone will finally call our bluff.

My own introduction to impostor syndrome came from Professor John Raeburn, who taught the first course I took as a Ph.D. student. Raeburn pointed out that as grad students, and particularly as students in an interdisciplinary program where students hailed from diverse undergraduate majors, we were going to feel as if we hadn’t read the right books and articles, and that everyone else in the class had indeed been adhering to an essential textual canon to which we ourselves hadn’t been clued in. He then pointed out that none of us would be sitting in the classroom that day if the professors running the program didn’t want us there, that our contributions were valued, that we weren’t impostors—and that everyone, faculty included, felt the same anxiety at least some of the time.

I am so grateful to have had such a straightforward introduction to impostor syndrome, and to have it come so early in my academic career. Yes, I feel like a fraud much of the time—hey, I’m a history professor without any degrees in history—but Raeburn’s pep talk has made it easier for me to occasionally throw caution to the wind and share my ideas, their reception be damned.

For example, last year I contributed to Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital volume that underwent peer review and open review simultaneously, both in the public eye. To be honest, I was apprehensive about putting my work out there, but in the end decided the benefits outweighed the risks. Some of my colleagues confessed there was no way they would ever submit their work to such a transparent, public critique.

But back to the editorial board meeting. There was a brief lull in what had been a lively conversation as the people in the room—professional journalists, social media experts, university administrators and faculty—digested what I said.

dunce cap

“I feel so relieved,” one board member admitted, exhaling. “I didn’t realize I was feeling that until just now.”

Another person pointed out he was probably the only one in the room without a graduate degree and confessed he had been wondering what made him qualified to participate in our efforts at all. We all, he supposed, must secretly think him to be an idiot.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t faculty supremely confident in their expertise. But in my experience, the vast majority of us exist beneath the thinnest veneer of confidence. Behold our traditional academic crutches: the comprehensive textbooks for our survey courses, in case we fail to demonstrate in class discussion sufficient breadth of expertise; the bulleted PowerPoint slides, lest we lose our train of thought; classroom lectures with limited opportunities for questions we might not be able to answer competently. Attend any humanities conference, and there’s a very good chance you’ll see people with multiple graduate degrees reading their papers to others with multiple graduate degrees, worried they’ll misspeak if they share their ideas off the cuff.

I’m junior faculty, with maybe 30 years of academic life still in front of me, so I prefer to take the long view. Because it’s a busy world, media cycles are short and academic audiences are small, I trust my own gaffes will not live long in the memory of others in my field. In fact, I’ve come to embrace this strongheaded (and yes, sometimes wrongheaded) impulse to share ideas openly, here and elsewhere.

Of course, The Blue Review provides one such space for exploration and sharing, impostor syndrome be damned; you—yes, you!—can submit a blog post or article.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • TS

    From one imposter to another . . . it is true, especially for historians, I think, that we are asked to comment on things way beyond our expertise. There was a time when historians were reluctant to even comment on public affairs.. The problem is that people who know less about history than we do will use historical assumptions, simplistically, to comment on policy that shapes our lives. We might pale in comparison to our own distinguished professors–I had a Noble laureate on my committee. But compared to people without any training in a state where so few have college training, I would submit that you know more than you know. Compared to me, when it comes to new modes of communications, you are Leonardo Da Vinci. And speaking of Leonardo, his dying words, allegedly, were something humbling to the effect of “the totality of my life’s work didn’t add up to much.” So here we have one of world’s great geniuses who measured his work by the distance between what he could do and how far he see. Talk about imposter syndrome.

  • I can’t tell you how happy I am to read this. I’ve felt like an impostor from the first day I walked into class. You made my day.