Impostor Syndrome

Academics often share that they feel like an impostor in a variety of situations: while speaking at a conference, delivering a lecture, introducing themselves as Professor ABC, etc. I often feel like this when I talk to my students about how to write well. I’m sure most (if not all) of it exists only in my imagination, but I can swear I see them think, “You even speak with an accent, so who are you to tell us how to write well?” (And then I get nervous, and my accent becomes stronger, and I feel even more like an impostor, and so on).

This is why I was so gratified to read the following comment on Jonathan’s blog:

Students often seem bland to me, because what they write is generic. They give me a standard view of things, not what they really think when that is stripped away. On the other hand, bloggers like Clarissa or Z always have something interesting to say because they are very much themselves. It doesn’t even matter whether I agree with any particular statement they make or whether I think their personal viewpoint is generalizable to any other human being on the planet. Who cares?

See? I do have the right to tell students a few things about how to write well.

7 thoughts on “Impostor Syndrome”

  1. Aww 🙂 You’ve absolutely no reason to worry about your ability to instruct people on good writing, Clarissa. You have earned every right to do that.

    Also, in an American context, *I* speak with an accent. This has never been correlated in my mind with fluency. I’ve spoken English — admittedly like a baby — since I was about ten months old. It was the first language I learnt to speak properly (though my mother tongue followed very closely behind; the national language came some years later). So yeah. I know some of your more insular students might link a foreign accent lack of fluency, but don’t they come to college precisely to realise that sort of causal logic is wrong? 😀

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  2. “You even speak with an accent, so who are you to tell us how to write well?”

    I hear ya… And I can guarantee that a number of students think this, even if they won’t say it.
    It has nothing to do with the quality of your writing (which all of us here admire!), it’s a preconceived notion on the student’s part that stems from a mixture of xenophobia and a superiority complex over all us foreign folks.

    I am in the sciences, where writing good technical papers is an acquired skill. There are unwritten rules as to what constitutes powerful, clear, and fluid technical writing, and I am quite adamant about following best practices. I know my technical papers are well-written because I frequently get positive comments on the quality of writing from the manuscript reviewers.

    I have had tremendous troubles in the past with an American-born graduate student who would fight me every step of the way on each manuscript we coauthored. For instance, this student suffered from “adjective diarrhea” which has no place in technical writing (or any writing, I dare say), used inappropriate terms (you do not call a scientific finding “heartwarming” in a journal paper, it’s not a love letter), and overall wrote in a cumbersome style, laden with passive voice. While the student never said so (I was their advisor), I know their resistance to my editing came from thinking that they a priori knew better because they were a native speaker.

    I know you don’t like link-dropping, but here are a few of related posts I wrote some time ago, I thought you might find them interesting

    http://academic-jungle.blogspot.com/2011/03/written-off.html

    http://academic-jungle.blogspot.com/2011/03/technical-writing-pet-peeves-contd.html

    http://academic-jungle.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-on-manuscript-writing-with-junior.html

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    1. “It has nothing to do with the quality of your writing (which all of us here admire!)”

      -Thank you so much, GMP!

      “used inappropriate terms (you do not call a scientific finding “heartwarming” in a journal paper, it’s not a love letter)”

      -A heartwarming scientific finding is priceless. 🙂 🙂

      “I know you don’t like link-dropping, but here are a few of related posts I wrote some time ago, I thought you might find them interesting”

      -I welcome links from people I like, so thank you!

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    2. I had to laugh at this (not at you), but of your examples, especially the “do not call a scientific finding “heartwarming” in a journal paper, it’s not a love letter. I hoped you laughed at his arrogance–at least to yourself. I’m certain you are right about his resistance and I would add that he was an arrogant idiot.

      I do hope you know that native speakers and writers are subjected to all kinds of criticism and most of it is unwarranted. I used to belong to a writers group and one of the members of the group shared their success of a published story in the local paper. The editor kindly sent along a note to the author from an angry reader, who actually took the time to launch into an attack criticizing both the editor and the writer for misspelling the word alyssum (a dainty, dense lovely white flower)–the writer forgot an s and apparently the copy writer failed to see the error. And horror of horrors I guess it just sent the reader over the edge. They delivered a long, petty diatribe which benefitted no one except the idiot who wrote it. It only further demonstrated to me how petty some people can be and choose to be and how those types of people enjoy sharing their misery with others.

      Well, I shared that only to let you know as I said above that native writers are not immune to the stupidity of others and that they experience the wrath of the petty, obnoxious and arrogance of other people too.

      Me, I appreciate it when people from other countries take the time to try to learn my language. I find it heatwarming. I try to do the same, although I do not always know if my gestures are appreciated.

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      1. Ruth Rendell’s short story collection Piranha to Scurfy opens with a story about precisely this kind of reader who reads every book that comes into the market, searches for minor mistakes or typos and writes angry diatribes to the authors denouncing their illiteracy and lack of care. 🙂 The reader you talk about should have been shown this story. 🙂

        ‘Me, I appreciate it when people from other countries take the time to try to learn my language. I find it heatwarming. I try to do the same, although I do not always know if my gestures are appreciated.”

        -Thank you! When people start getting nasty about my English or Spanish, I always apologize for not managing to speak their language well enough to satisfy them and suggest we switch to my language from now on. 🙂

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  3. It is my experience that most European, Indian, African-born (including those from Francophone countries) biosciences students/ Ph.D.s / M.D.s, a majority of Pakistani, Bangladeshi students etc, and perhaps a quarter of Chinese and Japanese students etc have adequate to good writing skills. The Chinese and Japanese students etc face some significant grammatical and syntactical differences between their mother tongue and English.

    The “average” foreign-born “English as a second language” science graduate student has the same level of technical writing skill as the average American M.D. student. Some ESL students have better than average non-technical writing skills.

    “Heartwarming” – yes, the grad student (not to mention the P.I.) no doubt feels that way about a good result. 😉 I have to admit that seeing “heartwarming” in a scientific paper would lead to tea spew and keyboard dysfunction. (Exception: medical paper about cardiac surgery)

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