Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Discomforts of Uncertainty

One of the overarching themes of this blog is my faith in the power of writing as a way of clarifying what we are thinking. Just write. Let yourself write. Make yourself write. Nothing is set in stone. Try things out. Decide later if you want it. Writing alone will tell you whether something needed to be written. While I remain entirely committed to this notion, I think it is important to articulate the ways that this practice can be hard. After the great reaction to my last post on the inherent difficulties of academic writing, I thought it might make sense to devote some time to difficulties we are likely to encounter when trying to put common writing advice into practice. In this post, I’m going to talk about two ways that exploratory writing can be a source of discomfort.

In the first place, exploratory writing can be nerve-racking. Even if we tell ourselves that nothing is set in stone, we may still feel the weight of the chisel in our hands as we write. What if this isn’t what I need to say and what if I’m unable to change it later? ‘Write now, edit later’ may in fact be good advice, but we can still feel as though we are digging our own graves with every new word. At some point in the drafting process, most of us will lose faith in our own abilities as an editor. This feeling of dread requires delicate handling. Good writing rarely feels like good writing. So giving up on a direction in our text because we’ve decided it’s awful is a risky proposition. In general, I try to keep faith with my early drafts, forestalling my own anxiety with the recollection of all those times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a text that I thought was irredeemable. Of course, there are times when we need to cut our losses. I’ve talked about being willing to get rid of ‘perfectly good writing’ later through editing. But there may also be times when we need to pull the plug on the grounds that the incoherence feels unmanageable. A compromise option is to carry on while using a different font to signal to ourselves that we’re on thin ice. The simplest way of doing this is by using all caps, but a distinct colour or a fancy handwriting fonts (I like Segoe Script) can also work. The important thing is convince ourselves that we’re just spitballing. This lack of commitment can help us to overcome anxiety that might otherwise stop us from writing.

A second difficulty with exploratory writing can be the disorienting experience of returning to the text during editing. We may experience a kind of vertigo caused by a sudden uncertainty about what we actually want to say. Did we mean to say ‘A causes B’ or should it be ‘B causes A’? And how are such fundamental questions even possible? Shouldn’t we just know what we are trying to say? We naturally feel that the decision ought to be made on some bedrock of intention. Which is fine except that the unsaid is often still unknown, especially in the case of writing that is very abstract; the first draft is often the first opportunity to make a decision about meaning. We are rarely in the position of simply ‘writing down what we think’. Instead, we are putting words together in a way that then shapes meaning. Sometimes the editing process can show us—in a helpful way—what we’ve been trying to figure out in our heads. But other times it shows us puzzling statements that we may or may not be able to claim as our own. The demands of syntax or the limits of our ability to craft sentences can lead us to say things that we may not recognize. This experience can be alienating and can easily make ourselves doubt our own capacity as writers.

These two types of anxiety can both be traced back to a decision to use writing as a way of figuring out what needs to be said. To me, the other option—waiting to write until we know what we want to say—would be fine except that it doesn’t work for most people. Without the challenge of writing, most of us can’t articulate meaning. But if we are going to treat exploratory writing as an essential part of our process, we need to be aware of the anxiety it can produce, during both the writing and editing process. That anxiety, while unpleasant, isn’t a sign that things are going badly; on the contrary, the uncomfortable uncertainty of a first draft is often a sign that we are on our way to making the decisions necessary for a successful final draft.

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Imposter Syndrome and Academic Writing

I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the frequent invocation of imposter syndrome. I recently heard someone say that all academics have imposter syndrome, and that claim confirmed why I am hesitant about the designation. If everyone suffers from a particular syndrome, it starts to seem less like a syndrome and more like the human condition. Or, in this case, the academic condition. But before I explore my objections, let’s consider what imposter syndrome is.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that we aren’t qualified or entitled or competent but that we have somehow managed to fool people into thinking that we are. It is often described as a failure to internalize success. (If you want more information, here is a webpage with an extensive bibliography.) It’s easy to see how these feelings take root in academics. At many points—especially early on—we are judged on our potential while being given very little concrete feedback on our finished work. The emphasis on the potential over the actual easily leads to anxiety. We are admitted to graduate school on the basis of past performance and a statement of what we hope to do in the future. The grant application, the conference abstract, and the dissertation proposal all follow the same pattern: we write a compact and aspirational text and then start to worry that we won’t be able to produce the actual work. Not living up to our promising promises will lead to us finally being revealed as the frauds we secretly believe ourselves to be.

Needless to say, this description rings true for lots of us and shows an awful cycle in which successes can make some people more uneasy. Instead of enjoying being ABD, a doctoral student might believe that, with all the ‘easier’ steps completed, she will now be unable to write the dissertation. The imposter mindset is pernicious because it often feels cumulative; each new success means that the fraud has still not be detected, making the eventual unmasking of the imposter even worse. Imposter syndrome thrives when we fail to take into account the meaning of all the success we experience. The antidote is to trust the people who grant us approval along the way. Think of how easily we often denigrate that approval: ‘I was just lucky.’ ‘It was a weak field of applicants.’ ‘Nobody else was available.’ Any of those statements could be true—and there are real benefits to humility—but we almost never know them to be true. We all need to trust the experience and expertise of the people who express approbation. Of course, any given evaluator may in fact be throwing a stack of papers down the stairs and using the results to make decisions, but such randomness is rare. Over time, positive results mean something, and dismissing those positive responses as error or luck denies us the opportunity to deepen our confidence in our own abilities. (Here is a helpful post from Inside Higher Ed on the role of mentoring in managing feelings of inadequacy in graduate school. And another from The Singular Scientist blog that deals with the full spectrum of under- and over-confidence.)

Given all this, surely it seems useful to talk about imposter syndrome. I certainly encourage graduate students to be reflective about the way that approbation functions in academia. We can all benefit from being able to take a compliment. And there are people whose sense of their own imposterhood is so deep as to be a significant impediment to their work. (This video from University Affairs offers some suggestions for dealing with imposter syndrome.) So I am not objecting to the use of the term, but rather to the notion that it applies to all of us. In other words, my objection is to the way that a universal application of the term appears to pathologize inevitable aspects of academic life.

This overuse of the term concerns me for two reasons. In the first place, if the term is used to describe everyone, then it doesn’t have much power left to help those who are genuinely suffering. Those who need  resources to help them find a way to internalize their successes might be helped by having the term reserved for a more specific condition.

In the second place, I worry that treating dis-comfort as exceptional contributes to the notion that we ought to feel comfortable. In particular, I am troubled by the notion that we ought to feel comfortable about academic writing. Writers must learn to live with a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability. Exposing our ideas to public scrutiny is uncomfortable, and recognizing that discomfort as inevitable can actually help make us more comfortable. The recognition of discomfort acknowledges the inherent and ongoing challenges of academic expression. It helps keep us humble, which matters if we are going to produce interesting and honest work. It makes us work harder than we might otherwise do. Academic writing is a struggle and not a realm in which confidence and complacency are ever likely to predominate. It’s not my intention to valorize any notion of suffering for art, but rather to accept the likelihood that producing good academic prose that we are willing to present to the public will be a struggle. Students often seek out writing instruction so that the writing process will become easier. However, in many cases, it’s more realistic to focus on writing better than to focus on lessening the emotional costs of writing. This acceptance of writing as an intrinsically challenging act seems particularly important for novice writers who often assume that the challenges come from their inexperience rather than from the very nature of academic writing.

Overall, while I see great benefit in understanding the dynamics of imposter syndrome, I want to be cautious about the idea that there is something wrong with us if we find academic writing deeply challenging. For most academic writers, the best course of action may be to acknowledge the psychic toll that writing takes and to focus on acquiring strategies to make both the writing and the writing process better.