two things that made me think this week

Last weekend brought the inevitable long Saturday newspaper read – that’s a thing in our house. We only buy one paper a week and we do like to sit down and savor it the morning it’s bought. We leave some of the sections on the kitchen table and they become browsing material until the next instalment.

This week’s book section – my favourite piece of the paper – carried a small article by Simon Garfield about time – Faster isn’t always better. Time is of course a continued hot topic in the academy. So it wasn’t particularly surprising then that I was struck by this extract from Garfield’s new book:

We crave punctuality but we loathe deadlines. We count down precisely on New Year’s Eve so we may obliterate the hours that follow. We pay for Speedy Boarding so that we may sit on a plane and wait for everyone else to board, and then when we land we pay to get fast-tracked. We used to have time to think, but now instant communication barely gives us time to react. Paradise is a beach and the eternal waves and a good book, but then there’s email. Why not save time with Apple Pay? Why not experience ultrafast speed up to 200Mbps with Vivid 200 fibre broadband? An online search for ‘time management’ produces ‘about’ 59,000,000 results in 0.48 seconds.

What, I have been wondering since reading this, are the academic equivalences of the rush to speed?  Impatience with meetings that go on too long while we also extoll the virtues of collaborative deliberation? Emailing the person in the next office while deploring the alienating effects of academic performativity? Railing against turn-around targets for marking while gnashing our teeth about tardy journal reviews?

I don’t know – but I am still pondering whether there is some mileage in thinking about where we are time-impatient in academic life. Where/when are those times when we get impatient and wish we could speed up, when we actually might slow down?


On Tuesday I happened across an article in my twitter feed entitled Feeling like an Imposter Is Not a Syndrome. The author L.N Anderson very usefully charts the development of the notion of Imposter Syndrome – the original was apparently 1970s research by Pauline Rose Clance on female university students seeking counselling. All of them felt that they didn’t deserve the success that they enjoyed. The syndrome was initially about feeling un-deserving of something one had actually earned.

Anderson argues that that the sense of being undeserving is a feeling shared by almost everyone at some time. What’s more, she suggests, following Clance’s subsequent research, it isn’t really a ‘syndrome’, which typically makes you ill.

Perhaps because it’s commonly called a “syndrome,” impostorism is often referred to as something you “have” or “suffer from”, as though it’s a diagnosable and treatable condition like schizophrenia or a cold. … It turns out almost everyone has impostor syndrome.

In truth, impostor syndrome doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a psychological syndrome, which is defined as a cluster of symptoms that causes intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function. “I’m not sure when it began to be called a syndrome, but I do think that somehow that’s just easier for people to think about than phenomenon,” Clance told me. “They’re not quite sure what phenomenon means.” 

So Imposter Phenomenon then.

Having a label like Imposter Syndrome/Phenomenon to hang on the feeling of un-deservedness can be helpful, Anderson writes. However, it also has unhelpful political consequences, particularly for women who often don’t get the career rewards and positions that they ought to. It’s not that women are undeserving winners Anderson says, and she then goes on to discuss the ‘glass ceiling’.

The subsequent twitter exchange about the article noted that the problem with the term  Imposter Syndrome was that, in focusing on the individual and their feelings, the structural inequalities and narrow social norms that produced the feelings in the first place were obscured. The label became a version of “blame the victim” talk.

I’ve been fretting about Imposter Syndrome for some time now. Of course it’s not unhelpful too know that you’re not the only one that feels like a bit of a fraud sometimes. But.. But… The term is undoubtedly of some use, naming a feeling can be a step to reframing it.  But… But…

Imposter Syndrome is a term I’ve used myself – but I have become increasingly worried about its blanket application. Imposter Syndrome now seems to apply to almost every situation where one is not relaxed or feels a bit out of place. Imposter Syndrome has expanded to cover everything unfamiliar – talking at a conference,  having the wrong kit at a workshop, dressing in the wrong clothes for an event. And I’ve certainly seen, as the twitter conversation suggested, Imposter Syndrome used to describe something systemic and structural – feeling like a ‘fish out of water’ as Bourdieu has it, being ‘othered’ by the workings of class, race, gender, ableism.

It does seem that there is a wider conversation to be had about where and when the notion of Imposter Syndrome is useful, and how. It is important to deal with negative undermining feelings. But it’s equally important to address the causes of those feelings in the first place. IMHO, any labelling process which ends up with large numbers of people seeing themselves, or being seen, as deficient and needing to be fixed, needs to be questioned.  We need to look for the logic of what’s happening. Why this social phenomenon?

Feelings of uncertainty, nervousness, newness and so on are pretty rational and ordinary responses to unfamiliar and challenging situations – we probably don’t need to pathologise them as a syndrome in order to deal with them. ( See for example my recent post on improv as a way to deal with nervousness in presentations.) On the other hand, discriminatory, simultaneously privileging, systemic practices really desperately need to be called out and changed.

So how do we talk about undeservedness then? Well I don’t know – but while looking for an answer to that question, I’m certainly going to stop and think about what I really mean the next time I find myself about to say Imposter Syndrome.


* When preparing this post, I noticed that Pauline Rose Clance does have a self diagnostic Scale for Imposter Phenomenon on her website – answer some questions and find out how much of an imposter do you feel, compared to others. Not sure how I feel about this – well, maybe I do….


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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