Tag Archives: impostor syndrome

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian
Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”


A topic which I’ll revisit, to be sure. But while I’m at it…
I tend to react rather strongly to a behaviour which I consider the intellectual equivalent of schoolyard bullying.
Notice that I don’t claim to be above this kind of behaviour. I’m not. In fact, one reason for my blogging this is that I have given some thought to my typical anti-bullying reaction. Not that I feel bad about it. But I do wonder if it might not be a good idea to adopt a variety of mechanisms to respond to bullying, in conjunction with my more “gut response” knee-jerk reactions and habits.
Notice also that i’m not describing individual bullies. I’m not complaining about persons. I’m thinking about behaviour. Granted, certain behaviours are typically associated with certain people and bullying is no exception. But instead of blaming, I’d like to assess, at least as a step in a given direction. What can I do? I’m an ethnographer.
Like schoolyardb bullying, intello-bullying is based on a perceived strength used to exploit and/or harm those who perceived as weaker. Like physical strength, the perception of “intellectual strength” on which intello-bullying is based needs not have any objective validity. We’re in subjectivity territory, here. And subjects perceive in patterned but often obscure ways. Those who think of themselves as “strong” in intellectual as well as physical senses, are sometimes the people who are insecure as to their overall strengths and weaknesses.
Unlike schoolyard bullying, intello-bullying can be, and often is, originated by otherwise reasonably mature people. In fact, some of the most agressive intello-bullying comes from well-respected “career intellectuals” who “should know better.” Come to think of it, this type of bullying is probably the one I personally find the most problematic. But, again, I’m not talking about bullies. I’m not describing people. I’m talking about behaviour. And implications if behaviour.
My personal reactions may come from remnants of my impostor syndrome. Or maybe they come from a non-exclusive sense of self-worth that I found lying around in my life, as I was getting my happiness back. As much I try, I can’t help but feel that intello-bullying is a sign of intellectual self-absorption, which eventually link to weakness. Sorry, folks, but it seems to me that if you feel the need, even temporarily, to impose your intellectual strength on those you perceive as intellectually weak, I’ll assume you may “have issues to solve.” in fact, I react the same way when I perceive my own behaviour as tantamount to bullying. It’s the behaviour I have issues with. Not the person.
And this is the basis of my knee-jerks: when I witness bullying, I turn into a bully’s bully. Yeah, pretty dangerous. And quite unexpected for a lifelong pacifist like yours truly. But, at least I can talk and think about it. Unapologetically.
You know, this isn’t something I started doing yesterday. In fact, it may be part of a long-standing mission of mine. Half-implicit at first. Currently “assumed,” assessed, acknowledged. Accepted.
Before you blame me for the appearance of an “avenger complex” in this description, please give some more thought to bullying in general. My hunch is that many of you will admit that you value the existence of anti-bullies in schoolyards or in other contexts. You may prefer it if cases of bullying are solved through other means (sanction by school officials or by parents, creation of safe zones…). But I’d be somewhat surprised if your thoughts about anti-bullying prevention left no room for non-violent but strength-based control by peers. If it is the case, I’d be very interested in your comments on the issue. After all, I may be victim of some idiosyncratic notion of justice which you find inappropriate. I’m always willing to relativize.
Bear in mind that I’m not talking about retaliation. Though it may sound like it, this is no “eye for an eye” rule. Nor is it “present the left cheek.” it’s more like crowd control. Or this form of “non-abusive” technique used by occupational therapists and others while helping patients/clients who are “disorganizing.” Basically, I’m talking about responding to (intello-)bullying with calm but some strength being asserted. In the case of “fighting with words,” in my case, it may sound smug and even a bit dismissive. But it’s a localized smugness which I have a hard time finding unhealthy.
In a sense, I hope I’m talking about “taking the high road.” With a bit of self-centredness which has altruistic goals. “”I’ll act as if I were stronger than you, because you used your perceived strength to dominate somebody else. I don’t have anything against you but I feel you should be put in your place. Don’t make me go to the next step through which I can make you weep.”
At this point, I’m thinking martial arts. I don’t practise any martial art but, as an outsider, I get the impression this thinking goes well with some martial arts. Maybe judo, which allegedly relies on using your opponent’s strength. Or Tae Kwon Do, which always sounded “assertive yet peaceful” when described by practitioners.
The corrolary of all this is my attitude toward those who perceive themselves as weak. I have this strong tendency to want them to feel stronger. Both out of this idiosyncratic atttude toward justice and because of my compulsive empathy. So, when someone says something like “I’m not that smart” or “I don’t have anything to contribute,” I switch to the “nurturing mode” that I may occasionally use in class or with children. I mean not to patronize, though it probably sounds paternalistic to outside observers. It’s just a reaction I have. I don’t even think its consequences are that negative in most contexts.
Academic contexts are full of cases of intello-bullying. Classrooms, conferences, outings… Put a group of academics in a room and unless there’s a strong sense of community (Turner would say “communitas”), intello-bullying is likely to occur. At the very least, you may witness posturing, which I consider a mild form of bullying. It can be as subtle as a tricky question ask to someone who is unlikely to provide a face-saving answer and it can be as aggressive as questioning someone’s inteligence directly or claiming to have gone much beyond what somebody else has said.
In my mind, the most extreme context for this type of bullying is the classroom and it involves a teacher bullying a learner. Bullying between isn’t much better but, as a teacher, I’m even more troubled by the imposong authority structure based on status.

I put “cyber-bullying” as a tag because, in my mind, cyber-bullying (like trolling, flamebaiting and other agressive behaviours online) is a form of intello-bullying. It’s using a perceived “intellectual strength” to dominate. It’s very close to schoolyard bullying but because it may not rely on a display of physical strength, I tend to associate it with mind-based behaviour.
As I think about these issues, I keep thinking of snarky comments. Contrary to physical attacks, snarks necessitate a certain state of mind to be effective. They need to tap on some insecurity, some self-perceived weakness in the victim. But they can be quite dangerous in the right context.
As I write this, I think about my own snarky comments. Typically, they either come after some escalation or they will be as indefinite as possible. But they can be extremely insulting if they’re internalized by some people.
Two come from a fairly known tease/snark. Namely

If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

(With several variants.)

I can provide several satisfactory answers to what is ostensibly a question. But, as much as I try, I can’t relate to the sentiment behind this rhetorical utterance, regardless of immediate context (but regardful of the broader social context). This may have to do with the fact that “getting rich” really isn’t my goal in life. Not only do I agree with the statement that “money can’t buy happiness” and do I care more about happiness than more easily measurable forms of success, but my high empathy levels do include a concept of egalitarianism and solidarity which makes this emphasis on wealth sound counter-productive.

Probably because of my personal reactions to that snark, I have created at least two counter-snarks. My latest one, and the one which may best represent my perspective, is the following:

If you’re so smart, why ain’t you happy?

With direct reference to the original “wealth and intelligence” snark, I wish to bring attention to what I perceive to be a more appropriate goal in life (because it’s my own goal): pursuit of happiness. What I like about this “rhetorical question” is that it’s fairly ambiguous yet has some of the same effects as the “don’t think about pink elephants” illocutionary act. As a rhetorical question, it needs not be face-threatening. Because the “why aren’t you happy?” question can stand on its own, the intelligence premise “dangles.” And, more importantly, it represents one of my responses to what I perceive as a tendency (or attitude and “phase”) associating happiness with lack of intelligence. The whole “ignorance is bliss” and «imbécile heureux» perspective. Voltaire’s Candide and (failed) attempts to discredit Rousseau. Uses of “touchy-feely” and “warm and fuzzy” as insults. In short, the very attitude which makes most effectively tricks out intellectuals in the “pursuit of happiness.”

I posted my own snarky comment on micro-blogs and other social networks. A friend replied rather negatively. Though I can understand my friend’s issues with my snark, I also care rather deeply about delinking intelligence and depression.

A previous snark of mine was much more insulting. In fact, I would never ever use it with any individual, because I abhor insulting others. Especially about their intelligence. But it does sound to me like an efficient way to unpack the original snark. Pretty obvious and rather “nasty”:

If you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?

Again, I wouldn’t utter this to anyone. I did post it through social media. But, like the abovementioned snark on happiness, it wasn’t aimed at any specific person. Though I find it overly insulting, I do like its “counterstrike” power in witticism wars.

As announced through the “placeholder” tag and in the prefacing statement (or disclaimer), this post is but a draft. I’ll revisit this whole issue on several occasions and it’s probably better that I leave this post alone. Most of it was written while riding the bus from Ottawa to Montreal (through the WordPress editor available on the App Store). Though I’ve added a few things which weren’t in this post when I arrived in Montreal (e.g., a link to NAPPI training), I should probably leave this as a “bus ride post.”

I won’t even proofread this post.


Curmudgeon Phase

Just a placeholder but I do want to write something longer about attitudes toward “people with attitude.”

I get the impression that, at least in intellectual circles in the United States or other Anglo contexts, there’s a common (to my mind mis-)conception that curmudgeony people are somehow “smarter” than anyone else. Not only do I think this would be an inaccurate characterization, but I think it’s embedded in broader issues about anti-intellectualism, social change, and philosophy.

Sure, some of the best-known curmudgeons have had some interesting ideas to share. But I see no connection between a miserly attitude and any form of insight. I even think that some people are adopting the attitude to position themselves as “intelligent people,” regardless of how intelligent they are (in quality as well as in “perceived measure”). To go even further, I think that the negative attitude in question is often but a phase in a longer process of intellectual discovery and that “enlightened” people often have a much more serene attitude.

In other words, I sometimes get the feeling that some people use an opinionated tone to fake being smart.

There. I’ve said it.

Now, I don’t mean to say that curmudgeons aren’t intelligent. My concept of intelligence doesn’t even work that way (I think there are different forms of intelligence, that intelligence can’t necessarily be measured, etc.). But I do think that some of the actual impostors (not those relating to the impostor syndrome) are using what they perceive as a “status symbol of intellectual prowess” to bolster their self-confidence in contexts which give a lot of prestige to so-called “smart people.”

As dismissive as it ends up sounding, I almost take the “curmudgeon phase” as the wit-focused equivalent to the awkward period of physical changes during puberty. It even reminds me of an exceedingly pointed mockery, by a member of Montreal’s intelligentsia, that a well-known Montreal journalist was “living beyond his intellectual means.” Though the mockery is very nasty, I happen to think that it encapsulated something of the journalist’s attitude which is worth considering. That journalist isn’t really that cranky (especially when compared with “professional curmudgeons” in the United States) but he clearly has “an attitude.” And I really don’t perceive that attitude as a sign of intellectual superiority. (Not that I have a clear notion of what “intellectual superiority” should entail but, hopefully, ya catch my drift.)

Some non-cranks seem to share the curmudgeons’ association of wits with ‘tude. At least, something similar may have been at stake when Douglas N. Adams, whom I’d have a hard time perceiving as a curmudgeon, wrote neurotic elevators and other technological annoyances into his Guide. Now, neurosis and ill-temper aren’t connected by necessity. But the notion that sentient technology would likely have a very negative attitude toward life (as well as toward the Universe and even toward Everything) seems to me to relate to the idea that it isn’t really possible to be both exceedingly intelligent and unbelievably happy. Slartibartfast‘s distinctions between happiness and truth contributes to my impression. And it seems quite likely that DNA wasn’t that serene a person, despite all the happiness to which he has contributed.

Ok, I guess that’ll have to do for now. It’s actually a relief to be writing this. As I’m becoming much more serene, I want to let go of this negativity which I’ve been encountering in some self-important circles.


“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you happy?” does sound less dismissive than the “if you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?” that I’d like to level at some ultra-competitive materialists.

Success and Gender (Impostor Edition)

Recently blogged about gender and success in the context of my friend Vali’s movie about Tupperware ladies being shown at the trendy Ex-Centris movie theater. This movie is now being broadcast on both cable and network television, in French and English. Vali’s is a successful story, whether or not she realizes it.

Gender and success are also associated in what is commonly called the “impostor syndrome” (also spelled “imposter syndrome,” henceforth “IS”).

Introduction of the Imposter Syndrome

People in different professions such as teachers, people in the social sciences, people in academia, actresses and actors, may all have imposter feelings. It was originally associated with women but recent research indicated that men suffer in similar numbers.

This phenomenon affects achievers and successful people of either gender but the original 1978 study was done by women with women as a target group. As is often the case (for instance, in “hedging” speech patterns), it seems that academics (both men and women) behave in a way reminiscent of socially mobile women.
There surely are research papers on the parallels between academia and gender in relation to IS. But IS is felt in daily life, which academics tend to keep secret.

As with the gender revolution a while ago, the time for academics to speak out is now.