Imposter syndrome: the number-one enemy of not only first-generation college students, but also most sane graduate students. For the entire first year of my MFA program – and the first few months in particular – I struggled with an intense case of imposter syndrome. Looking back, I think the problem went beyond just not feeling “smart” enough. I wrote both poetry and fiction in college, and I settled on doing an MFA in poetry because I felt I could learn more in that genre. I did not read much contemporary poetry, and I assumed an MFA program would not only improve my writing but my reading, as well. And of course, it did. I am a poetry fiend now, and I read a much wider variety of poets than I ever would have had I not done a poetry-focused program. But at the time, my lack of knowledge felt like a massive personal failure, as if I had somehow tricked my way through writing seriously since the age of eight and now would have to undo my entire self-defined identity.
However, those first few weeks were pure misery. The second-year students had a favorite question: “Who do you read?” They asked us new MFAs that question constantly, testing us. Were we cool enough? Would we say the right thing to pass? Of course, nothing I ever said was cool enough. The only poet I loved that anyone was impressed with was Richard Siken. (Said one of the second-years: “Oooh, I love Siken. He’s so violent.” To which I had nothing to add. I mostly love Siken because he writes like a camera and makes my guts hurt. I suppose that is violent in its own way.) The “Who do you read?” question still makes me cringe. When my cohort became second-years and started to take the first-years under our wings, we all agreed to never ask the Question of Doom. I think everyone was happier because of it.
The problem with Imposter Syndrome is that it creates hyper-vigilance. Everything feels like a test. In college, I tried so hard to pretend I knew everything that I never asked for help.. In my MFA program, I agonized over the comments I wrote on workshop classmates’ poems, in case I said something that would reveal how little I knew about poetry. I lied about the books I liked in case anyone judged me for them. And of course, these things only came to bite me in the ass in the long run. But at the time, they were self-preservation tactics. I spent so much time faking my way through things that I did not enjoy my first couple years of undergrad or my first year of the MFA.
So I assumed Imposter Syndrome would hit with even more force when I entered a PhD program. After all, I do not even have a rhetoric and composition background. I never took a first-year writing class. The only composition theory I have a background in is writing center theory, and that has been fairly surface-level. I taught developmental writing at a community college, which, unfortunately, required more time teaching students basic study skills and involved very little pedagogical development. Receiving an acceptance to my top-choice rhet/comp program shocked me. I wanted it so badly, and then immediately felt sure I would be “the dumb one.” That was my plea all summer. Oh please, God, please don’t let me be the one everyone thinks of as “the dumb one.”
I do not know what strange magic fairy dust lurks in the hearts of most of the people involved in my PhD program, but everyone here has been very welcoming. Better yet, the faculty and other students act as though they genuinely want me here and want me to be successful. I am shocked to discover that not only am I not “the dumb one,” but that no one here really seems to spend much time thinking in those types of binaries. My classmates are incredibly smart, and they seem receptive to my ideas. Amazing.
And what I’ve realized is that I have gotten really, really good at faking it. I ask questions when I need to understand something, but otherwise, I tell myself I can pick up a skill or theory later and I move on. This system works well, and I think I am starting to realize that this is simply how most of the people I know in academia actually make it through. Of course, I cannot get rid of the Imposter Syndrome lurking somewhere in my dark heart. I keep waiting for it to spring up and rear its ugly head. And a few times, it’s gotten close – when a student asks me something I don’t know, when everyone nods their head at some theoretical concept and I just nod along. Sometimes, a classmate will rattle out a whole handful of sentences in which I barely recognize a single name or term. But my recovery time has improved. In those first months of my MFA, if someone mentioned a poet or theorist I didn’t know, I would nearly shake in fear that I would somehow be brought into the conversation. Now, I simply make a note in the margins of my notebook page and try to keep up with the conversation. Better yet, I have started to find the things I can add, the perspectives I bring that might contribute to conversations rather than stall them.
I would not say that the Imposter Syndrome has gone away. It most certainly has not. But I’m developing strategies to cope. Taking more notes. Asking more questions. And sometimes, when things seem at their worst, I just read a comic book extra-hard to divert myself. It isn’t the worst coping system in the world. I might make it through this first semester after all, and without once seriously considering myself “the dumb one.”