You know that feeling, right? That you don’t ‘fit’ in an academic situation, whether it is a job interview, a conference or a seminar about how you have to have a grant, three book contracts and an impact case study if you don’t want to end up on the dole. It’s a feeling of unease, that somehow you’ve taken a wrong turn into Bizarro World or said something so egregiously idiotic that the villagers are dousing their pitchforks and striking a match. In the broadest sense, this is referred to as ‘imposter syndrome’ and, generally, everyone except people born or bred into supreme self-confidence get this from time to time. Indeed, a little self-doubt can be a good thing if it is harnessed correctly. It can lead you to alter a course of research that isn’t working or reassess your teaching practice.
However, what I want to talk about here isn’t a general sense of unease but, rather, the problem of ‘fitting in’. By that, I am referring to developing confidence in voicing your ideas in an academic venue when there are structural forces mitigating against you, those situations where you don’t look or sound like most of the other people in the room. I’ll be broad here, as I want to join an ongoing conversation about lots of different forces: class, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and others. I believe fundamentally that academia is better for an actually diverse range of voices, not just to pay lip service to right-on causes, but because hearing from people with different social and critical voices to your own will help us develop more nuanced critical perspectives. Echo chambers get you nowhere. So, how do we speak up when a situation is telling us to pipe down?
I’ll admit that my own experiences of this are limited to issues of class and gender. While the problem of gender in academia has been well documented, class has received less of a sustained focus but can really affect a sense of ‘belonging’ in academic situations. It is often described in terms of regional accents but, obviously, affects everything . What I’d like to do with this post is to discuss a few ways to address the problem of ‘fitting in’, or unease in academic situations, while acknowledging that there are many structural problems that we need to work together to fix.
This is most vital: you need someone to commiserate with over the fruit plate. If people from a social group have been dominating a room, you need to let off steam, even if it’s just a flippant comment. Then take your irritation and use it: organise an event that reflects your perspective. Even if it doesn’t have grand funding, begin by doing something small that you think is important. Quite often, scanning the room for people throwing shade as the same old ideas are recycled, has found me the most wonderful collaborators. These don’t have to be people from the exact same social background to you, but rather anyone else who is hungry for change and has the motivation to start small to change dominant conversations.
From the Ingrid Bergman film of 1944, this term refers to the ways in which a situation can be consistently manipulated so the victim doubts their own version of what happened. But, if you’ve ever felt that forces were mitigating against you contributing to an event: I believe you! It’s not always nervousness, or not formulating your ideas in an acceptable format quickly enough. Sometimes when you’ve see the same types of people be constantly venerated in your discipline, it becomes difficult to feel that what you have to say is vital and important. Read Sara Ahmed’s brilliant blog, practice self-care but stay willful. It can be intimidating when people have that natural confidence that is bred through experience and education when you’ve never really learned to communicate in the ‘right’ manner. This is where finding your people is vital: you might find that you begin to gravitate to less formal events, to events open to the public, to symposia rather than grand conferences. Just because a format of an event is common, doesn’t mean that it’s ideal. Think about other ways you can exchange your knowledge and interact with others, whether online or off. There is a world beyond ‘This isn’t a question, it’s more of a comment [Five minutes of my research]’.
Know that your voice is needed
It can be exhausting to chip away at established ideas. You might find, for example, that your reception runs the gamut from everyday marginalisation to outright hostility. This is where you need to gather yourself and remember why you’re here. It might be an idea to have something you can bring with you: a photo of your grandparents who couldn’t have dreamed of going to University. In my email inbox I keep kind messages from former students that I flip through if I’m feeling disheartened. Remember the people that you’re writing for and how, often, you’re helping to give them a voice. Chances are, you’re writing for reasons deeper than just self promotion, never forget that. You’re teaching the next generation of critical thinkers and intervening vitally in a conversation about ideas: your perspectives are necessary to keep your discipline honest. It’s a hard, gruelling fight but it can be worth it if you look after yourself.
You’ve read things they haven’t!
I always forget this one when I’m at an event where people are throwing around postmodern fiction or theorists like it’s no big thing. I sit quietly and pray no one asks me for the finer plot details, in French, of the third book of In Search of Lost Time. But I should remember that I’ve read the vast majority of Northern Irish fiction, everything I can get my hands on by Lauren Berlant and I once taught Ulysses in Dublin. And you’re the same! The reason people lean back and say ‘Well, of course, as Such and Such would say’ is because they know about Such and Such. Ask them a few careful questions about your part of the world and they’ll fold like a cheap tent at a music festival. Remember: no one can know it all and I guarantee you have things to contribute that they don’t.
When you get there: speak up!
I’m sure you’re saying that this is all well and good for you, but I’d like to not annoy anyone in power because I’d like a shiny academic job that allows me such luxuries as food and rent. I completely hear that: precariousness is something I know well and you never know which besuited individual might pitch up at the other end of an interview table. If you soft pedal some of your more radical notions now, you have to make me a promise. Pinky swear that, as soon as you get a stable academic job, that you will speak up for the work of emerging academics, that you will ask the difficult questions and that you will reconsider who gets to ‘fit in’. We aren’t going to move forward as scholars of the humanities unless we show a little empathy to the structural forces that are keeping our most exciting new voices from showing us what they can contribute.