Imposter syndrome: You probably have it.

Today I’m writing to you about something that’s so central to my experience of being a teacher and an academic that I considered calling this The Imposter Blog. (I decided that might be confusing.) Imposter syndrome has become a widely documented phenomenon in the fields of psychology and education. It simply means feeling like everyone else in your group (whether that’s a class, a doctoral cohort, a department at work, or even a group of gaming friends) belongs there, but that you’re an unqualified, inexperienced imposter–a poser, as people my age used to say when we were teens. If you’re a teacher, have you ever though as you approached your students (whether online or in front of a classroom), “I don’t know enough about this topic to be teaching other people about it?” If so, you’ve experienced imposter system. (If not, are you lying?)

One of the strongest triggers of imposter syndrome in my life has been joining the faculty of the university where I earned my first two degrees, coming to teach alongside professors who once taught me. Besides the perpetually awkward conundrum of what to call them (there are some whose first names I’ll never be able to bring myself to use), I have a really hard time shaking the feeling that I’m just the annoying kid who tags along with the adults. Although it’s been a few years and I’ve started coming into my own as a colleague, there are still situations that send me straight back to being a shy nineteen-year-old sitting in my first British lit class. These include having to express disagreement with one of my former professors, serving on a thesis committee with them (especially if I’m the chair), and being asked to share my expertise on something (gut reaction: what expertise?).

Instead of giving you my five steps to overcoming imposter syndrome (as a matter of fact, I don’t have those), I’d like to ask you to share your expertise, or at least your stories. In what situations, if any, have you felt imposter syndrome? Is there anything you can do that helps? Is there anything your colleagues or administrators have done that helps, or that you wish they would do?

Thanks for being part of this community! Next time, I won’t make you wait so long for a new post.

on “putting oneself out there” and how it feels to fail

I thought I’d start this blog on a positive note with a post about rejection and failure.

That’s a joke; you can laugh. I’m not trying to make a profound statement about the value of failure. I believe it can be valuable, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I want to start a conversation about how rejection and failure—and the fear thereof—feel in the moment you are experiencing them, before you start looking for life lessons and recalling all the inspiration quotes you’ve read about Thomas Edison and people like that. Let’s talk about what makes us feel these feelings and what we do to deal with them.

Academics are always at risk of rejection and failure. I am reading a book by Helen Sword called Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write (and really enjoying it! Perhaps I’ll review it here when I finish), and I found it delightfully ironic but not surprising that she included a chapter on failure in a book about successful people. The book consists largely of quotations from Sword’s extensive interviews with prolific and well-regarded (but not necessarily celebrity-level) scholars from across the disciplines, and in this chapter, they speak of rejection letters, bad reviews, discouraging colleagues and “mentors” (I put this in scare quotes because a discouraging mentor should be an impossibility), and the all too familiar fear of sharing one’s words and ideas with an audience of any size.

Sword’s book is addressed to professors who publish academically on a regular basis, which means I’m a little bit outside her target demographic. Perhaps some of you, like me, are in a position in which your primary duty is to teach and there is little or no expectation for you to publish. But that doesn’t mean you don’t consistently face rejection and failure too. For one thing, if you have a blog, a social media platform, or even a regular-person social media profile that your colleagues and students can find, your ideas (and your photos of sunrises and pumpkin spice lattes—I’m talking about myself here) have a larger audience than you might feel entirely comfortable with. If you are an online faculty member with creative control over your own course, your students are reading your words, hearing your voice, perhaps seeing your face each time they log into the course, and there’s always a risk that the students will find your mannerisms awkward or your teaching style overbearing, or that an activity or reading you assign will fall flat. Even if you see yourself as merely a facilitator of a course that someone else designed, you are still the breathing, human face of the course for your students, and every time you post grading feedback or send an email clarifying an instruction, there’s a chance your students will misunderstand or be offended or ignore you.

Why do we keep setting ourselves up for potential rejection or failure? Well, think about the alternatives—you could just not reply to your emails, or you could never try anything new in your course, or you could wear a paper bag over your head in your course videos (as just a few examples). I hope you agree with me that, while these alternatives may be enticing, they are not desirable options. The very same conditions that set you up for failure and rejection are also the conditions that allow you to teach, to encourage, to model, and—possibly—to change lives. But now I’m getting too inspirational. Let’s back up for a minute.

I want to talk about the specific scenarios that trigger those fears of rejection and failure. Please share in the comments below—what, in your teaching career, has made or regularly makes you want to hide under your desk? For me, one of the worst triggers is reading course evaluations. I think a big reason why these are so consistently scary for me is that my first full-time college-level instructional job was teaching a required, zero-credit course that many students regarded as remedial (which it was, even though we didn’t use that word) and as a punishment for not passing the placement test. Some students welcomed the opportunity, some begrudgingly came to admit that the course wasn’t a complete waste of their time, but others bore a semester-long grudge toward the course and took it out in the course evaluation. And of course, I read all the negative comments in the evaluations as if they were about me, as a person, even though many of them weren’t. So even though I’m now teaching courses that students tend to enjoy or at least find valuable, my heart rate still goes up and my palms get sweaty when I open those evaluations. I rush through them, seeking out negative comments so I can get them over with, which causes me to skim over and not fully appreciate the positive, sometimes even glowing, comments that now typically outnumber the bad ones. Course evaluations are supposed to be a tool to help faculty know how to improve their courses, but for me, they’re too tied up with ugly emotions to really be helpful. Like other things in academia that are supposed to be useful, they have become an ordeal instead (perhaps another post for another time?).

Here are some other scenarios that might trigger a fear of rejection or failure:

  • Presenting an idea in a committee meeting or email discussion
  • Asking for something (a pay increase, time off, the opportunity to teach a desired course)
  • Meeting with a new student who thinks you’re cool and wondering the whole time if her illusions about your awesomeness are being shattered (Does this sound oddly specific? It’s happened to me. By the way, this scenario involves imposter syndrome, a subcategory of today’s topic that I plan to write a whole post about soon.)

What are some of your scenarios? Why do you think they are triggers for you? Do they cause physiological symptoms like the ones I mentioned above? (The raised heart rate and sweaty palms are not just metaphors!) Is there anything you have learned to do to deal with these fears or at least mitigate their symptoms? (For example, in my welcome post, I mentioned that I might have my husband hold my hand while I read course evaluations.)

I’m excited about the community we are forming here, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this topic. If you found this post helpful or mildly entertaining, tell a colleague or friend!

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

a quick guide to being a great teacher

Like my title? Yeah, that’s clickbait. (And if you’re a teacher, you should know that.) But it also fits the story I want to tell you today.

Since 2016, when I designed the main online college course I teach right now, I have been requiring students to create a “research quick guide” in one of the last modules. The assignment is supposed to get them to reflect on what they know about how to do research in their field (“field” can be academic or professional, or in the case of my creative writing students, genre) and come up with a succinct way to share that knowledge with others. The important thing is the content, but somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten a little hung up on the design element of the assignment. I often find myself deducting points when a student’s guide is “hard to visually scan” or “more of an essay than a quick guide.” The problem is that there’s not a general consensus across contexts as to what a “quick guide” actually is. I’m committing that terrible teacher sin of asking my students to read my mind.

I should also point out that it’s pretty ironic that I’m judging other people’s design skills, as may be evident from the fact that I’m still using this template from when I started this blog in 2011. I mean, I know basic principles like “don’t use Comic Sans in a work email” and “don’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide (and then turn your back to the audience and read straight from said wordy slide),” but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So not only am I asking students to read my mind, but I’m also asking them to do something I don’t really know how to do myself.

Now, as part of a larger update of the course, I’ve set out to create a quick guide for my students. My initial motivation for this project was not to create a quick guide as such; instead, I wanted to respond to a suggestion a student made last fall. (I’ve been carrying around the now-grubby no-longer-sticky note in my planner ever since then.) It turned out that some of the off-hand tips I gave her in emails were actually quite revelatory for her as a first-time online graduate student who hadn’t written an academic paper in years, and she thought that other students might also benefit from the advice. She suggested some categories, like “how to check grades and feedback,” “what is an annotated bibliography?,” and “getting to know your professor.”

Meanwhile, many students have asked for an example quick guide, so I decided to combine these two endeavors. I would create a quick guide to being an English 602 student (very meta, if you ask me). I hoped to be able to send this out to current and future students and tell them, “Hey, I’m not a designer, but I made this in Word and it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take me that long. You can do it too!”

I finally started on the document yesterday. For visual interest, I decided to use a variety of Word’s prefabricated text boxes and sidebars. I also used some relevant clip art icons to create a short border between two of the sections, and I inserted a photo from my computer. Nothing fancy, but I think it looks pretty good (though I still need to do the second page).

Here’s the problem: It wasn’t easy. Once I got some of the text boxes on the page, dragging them around to accommodate new elements was frustratingly difficult. Inserting and resizing the picture was a stab in the dark–I wasn’t sure what those numbers meant or why most of the photo had disappeared off the bottom of the page. I had to get my husband to help me, and even he, who’s all-around better at this stuff than I am, admitted that he didn’t know how to do everything I wanted to do.

So I don’t feel honest telling my students that creating a document like this will be easy. I sometimes have students who have design backgrounds or who use Publisher regularly in their work, and they turn in beautiful, readable, user-friendly quick guides. But for students who are having trouble centering their title or inserting a paragraph break in a basic essay, what I’m asking them to do in this assignment could be panic-inducing.

I’m going to finish the quick guide and send it to my students with the message I had planned to give them, minus “it wasn’t that easy and didn’t take me that long.” I am also going to add that their quick guide doesn’t need to look as good as mine; even some bullet points or a numbered list will show me that they’re thinking about how not to overwhelm their readers. I am going to continue assigning the quick guide, because I think it’s useful for students to work on problem-solving skills in a class about workplace writing–who knows what their bosses may ask them to create someday? But now that I’ve gone through the process of creating a quick guide myself, I’ve learned what’s most important about this assignment, and I’ve developed some empathy for my students. And I’ll be able to answer questions better in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t ask your students to do something you’ve never done yourself. That may not be a quick guide to becoming a great teacher, but it might be a small step to becoming at least a good one.

app recommendation: Forest

I’m writing to you today at the end of a productive and surprisingly relaxing day of grading Week 7 assignments (the big, culminating projects on which I try to give students their money’s worth in grading comments) for my online classes. I graded six assignments today (on track with the schedule I made yesterday), plus I did this week’s laundry, had lunch and watched a Friends episode with my husband, and even took a yoga break. I attribute my success and Zen-like calm partly to the fact that my classes are fairly small this term, but also to one of my favorite apps, Forest, which I’d like to recommend to you.

Several years ago, I learned about the Pomodoro method, a popular productivity technique that simply involves working for a period of time (usually 25 minutes) and then taking a short break (usually five minutes). There are plenty of apps for this, let alone the fact that you could easily replicate it with any timer or clock, but my favorite one is Forest, which I’ve been using for about a year. I believe it was my good friend Allison who introduced it to me, and I think I happened to be in England when she texted me about it. I actually did a fair bit of grading during my vacation in the village of Knutsford last summer—I was there visiting my dad, who was on a work project, and during the weekdays, he went to work, and I sat in the flat and graded, punctuating my work sessions with little breaks in the charmingly walkable streets of the village. I remember choosing my first Forest tree style while I was waiting for my takeaway sandwich at a delightful cheese shop/cafe.

So, about those trees: Forest is simple—if you succeed in focusing on your task for your selected span of time (I usually do 25 minutes but have also done 30 with equal success), a little virtual tree (or mushroom, grass tuft, bush…you get to pick) grows in your little virtual forest. If you use the app in Deep Focus mode, which I always do, your tree will die if you do anything else on your phone for more than about five seconds, and that’s a devastating enough consequence to keep me on task. There are gamified aspects to Forest—you can earn coins to unlock fancier tree styles, and you can even choose to have a real tree planted in your honor if you earn a large enough number of coins. But for me, the basic functionality is enough (though I have leveled up my trees a few times). It’s simple and charming (like Knutsford!), and it’s been making grading less dreadful for me since June 2019. Find it in the app store and let me know what you think!

what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!

 

the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

special guest next week: send me your questions!

Hi everyone! Next week, I’m going to have a special guest on my blog: my fiance, Jordan Martinus, a magnetics design engineer who enjoys playing role-playing and board games, teaching kids at Bible Study Fellowship, and staying active with CrossFit and basketball. He also loves hanging out with me and participating in such pastimes as walking, cooking, and watching movies. What would you like to know about Jordan? Post your questions here, and we’ll tackle them in next week’s post!

in praise of my students

I am currently teaching six classes, three in online programs and three that started out as on-campus classes and have moved to the weird jerry-rigged sort-of online hybrid-ish format that many colleges and universities have implemented in recent weeks. I just want to write a quick post in praise of my students. I am so proud of the resilience they are all showing, from the online student I talked with on the phone yesterday who’s behind in her work because she’s been working ten days straight in a healthcare facility, to the on-campus students who had to quickly move out of their dorms this past weekend. They are all still writing thoughtful, thorough, intellectually curious discussion board posts. They are taking the time to encourage each other and me. I should probably be telling them this instead of writing it in a blog post–perhaps I’ll send this to them tomorrow. But for now, I would like to encourage you to join me in telling someone that you’ve noticed how wonderful they are. If you want, shout those people out in the comments below!

what I’m doing this week: making risotto, being student-centered, and still planning a wedding

This post should not be read as me tooting my own horn (“you should be just like me”) but rather as me sharing some things that I’m doing that may or may not work for you–after all, you may have even better ideas. Also, it’s an aspirational post for me, too; I mean, this is only Monday, and even in a normal week, my best-laid plans can turn into a mess of arrows bumping tasks down to later in the week on my planner page (some of which tasks will fall off the page entirely). So, with all that in mind, here are three things that (you are free to do as you like) am planning to do this week.

  1. Making risotto. This morning, I bought ingredients to make one of my favorite dishes, risotto. I know that not everyone loves cooking, but for me, it’s relaxing and a way for me to use totally different skills than the ones I use in my work. Also, there’s sometimes a temptation, when we are housebound or just generally in stressful situations, to throw basic nutrition guidelines out the window, but I think it’s important for us to continue to be at least mindful of what we’re eating and feeding those we love. I’m not saying risotto is the pinnacle of healthy eating, but it certainly is filling and nourishing, and I’m adding peas and shrimp to mine (thanks for the idea, Betty Crocker) for some green and protein. So, again, I’m not telling you what to do, but perhaps you’d like to use some of your time at home to prepare something special in the kitchen–even if it’s just toast with your favorite nut butter.
  2. Being student-centered. My university, like most, has moved on-campus classes online for the next three weeks. There’s been a lot of talk in higher ed circles about the best way to ensure students are still getting both the rigor and the support of a traditional classroom setting. I’ve chosen to make things relatively easy for myself by using the same format–loosely based on a typical asynchronous* online course–for all three of my on-campus classes. But the really important thing, I think, is that I’m trying to be present for and supportive of my students–answering their emails promptly and encouragingly, commenting on their discussion boards here and there, etc. For me, one of the most crucial (and enjoyable) parts of teaching has always been letting my students know I’m a real person (hence the many times I “accidentally” display my desktop, which features a cute picture of me and my fiance, on the screen in the front of the classroom) and letting them know that I care about them as real people. This can be harder in an online environment, but it’s worth the effort, especially in times when students are facing even more anxiety than usual. So, if you’re looking for takeaways (again, it’s okay if you’re not), here are two: a. Keep doing your best work, even if it looks different than it did last week, and b. Make sure the people you care about know that you care.
  3. Still planning a wedding. So, speaking of my cute fiance…we are planning to get married on May 24. As of now, that’s far enough in the future that we may as well keep planning as if everything’s going forward as normal. When we get closer to the date, we may have to make some difficult decisions, just like couples with March wedding dates are having to make right now. (My heart goes out to them.) But today, I’m working on booking a salon so my bridesmaids and I can get our hair done, because right now, I’m still fully intending to have a wedding on May 24. The takeaway here is that we can’t know what the future is going to look like. We never can; this virus has simply highlighted that truth for us in a particularly poignant way. Not knowing the future is frightening, but acting like we know it usually only leads to despair. As Gandalf once said, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends…and that is an encouraging thought.”

*a fancy word that means “not conducted in real time”