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Sunday, April 12, 2015


It is an odd fact that if you suffer from some condition, it is reassuring to discover that it has a name, and even more reassuring to find that many others suffer from it as well.  Think how unbearable mortality would be if you were the only person to have contracted it.  This thought is prompted by my reading of a fascinating and extremely detailed evaluation of the Chapel Hill graduate Philosophy program prepared, as part of a departmental self-critique, by present and former graduate students.

At one point in the 37 page document reference is made to something called "Imposter Syndrome," a phrase with which I was unfamiliar.  Google took me to Wikipedia, and Wikipedia told me that "Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be."

I was enormously cheered up by reading this because all my life I have been suffering from something that I now discover has a name and afflicts large numbers of other people as well.  I began my long teaching career lecturing at Harvard on the history of Europe from Caesar to Napoleon despite never having taken a college history course.  I went on to teach a survey of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago without the slenderest scholarly credentials for such an enterprise.  I strut about posing as a Kant scholar when I cannot really read German.  I write endlessly about economics despite the fact that I probably could not pass an undergraduate Micro exam [although I have actually taught undergraduate Micro to two hundred UMass students.  Talk about being an imposter!] 

My secret shameful self-image is Wile e Coyote, who races pell mell over the edge of cliff and only discovers, twenty feet out, that he is no longer standing on anything, whereupon he plummets like a rock to earth.

But it is all right, because it seems there are many of us, and we have a syndrome.  Now, if I could only find a support group.


Ludwig Richter said...

Hail, fellow sufferer!

On Friday, in the middle of a lecture on the IMF, I found myself fielding questions from my young students, and as I struggled to answer them I realized that I didn't really know what I was talking about, something not lost on my audience. I responded by inviting one of my students to ask his father, whose academic background is in international economics, and to come back after spring break to explain to us just how the IMF addresses balance-of-payment problems.

Thankfully, the student seemed quite excited about his assignment because he is fascinated by such questions (the apple, apparently, not falling far from the tree).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A very cool move. Early on, I discovered that if a student asks a question one cannot answer, the right response is "That is a very good question. Rather than simply answer it, I am going to ask all of you to come to class next time with answers." That at least gives you a few days to bone up.

classtruggle said...

I feel the same way. However, over the years I have learned to put the self-denigration aside -- it is not necessary and does not help me in any way. We are where we are because we deserve to be here; no one has done us any favours; we did this on our own (of course with our family's help, but all parents are usually helpful).

So, we should start each day with the confidence of someone who has done well -- and could have possibly done better if we had the same level of support and class confidence as most others in university. Remember this is an issue of class more than anything else. The upper classes are confident and think they deserve to have or accomplish certain things, to go to university, to use health care services, etc [some studies have shown the middle and upper classes use government services much more than the lower classes]. Those from a working class background feel undeserving of their newly acquired positions, especially in the university where the next managers and owners of the working class are educated.

My own working class upbringing and my family's experiences/struggles have shaped my life and armed me with values and interests embedded in the histories, cultures, and struggles of all working class people. These were pieces of my childhood and teenage years that, in hindsight, were important gifts. They contributed to my educational pursuits and have served as key sources for my own development. I consider my experiences to be an asset (and not a source of shame), familiarising me with the views and habits of working people, influencing my political beliefs and class consciousness, and providing resources for my teaching practices and professional learning.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

well said!

Magpie said...

Prof. David Ruccio has a very good way to put the accomplishments of the elites in perspective.

Downton Abbey economics

Incidentally, I'm convinced that many holy cows in economics (am talking of really big names) were a bunch of overconfident mediocrities (as are many of their modern fanboys).

Chris said...

Maybe not the best example, but Louis Althusser basically said he suffered from imposter syndrome in his autobiography.

I definitely suffer from it.

I wonder if it's a nearly universal academic disease?

Magpie said...


I'm sure that there are cases of scholars affected by that chronic self-doubt, like Prof. Wolff, Ludwig Richter, and yourself.

Apparently, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, too, were victims of this kind of thing.

However, from that to conclude that this is a generalized condition seems excessive and naive.

For one, because it ignores an abundant crop of deliberate intellectual impostures, a few of which had surfaced and gained notoriety. I will not mention any in particular, but there are blogs famous for chronicling this, particularly in the natural sciences/engineering and psychology.

Not long ago, there was the case of a couple of prominent and extremely influential economists who intentionally "cooked" or at least badly mishandled their results. These economists never revealed their figures or, upon request, made them accessible for scrutiny. Some graduate students (from UMass, I seem to recall) caught them, after gaining access to the numbers.

It's not self-doubt what those cases suggest.

Chris said...

The rogoff reinhart controversy :)

You very well may be right. I was only wondering if it was a widespread affliction, but I've no intention of reaching any inductive conclusions from such a small sample set.

tom llewellyn said...

Well, in your defense, you are a GREAT imposter! All this time you had me convinced you were a world-class historian, social scientist, and economist. My dreams are shattered. Now please don't tell me that Fox News is not a bastion of truth and justice! My fragile ego can only take disappointment is small amounts.

Adam said...

Presumably, one who actually suffers from imposter syndrome should be unable to acknowledge herself as suffering from it--to admit you suffer in this way would be to acknowledge that your feelings of fraudulence are not well founded, and that you therefore do not really think of yourself as a fraud.

My sense is that those who profess to suffer from this are actually quite proud of themselves, and "imposter syndrome" is a form of false modesty.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Adam, that is spot on. As I have often observed, I am in my own way rather arrogant about my intellectual abilities. Hence my choice of Emily Dickinson poem for the cover of my autobiography. After all, the people in whose virtual presence I feel quite humble are the likes of John von Neumann.