My friend Leslie, one of the smartest people I know, wrote a great post about overcoming the impostor syndrome. Boy, howdy, can I relate. Just as I started to my own sense of confidence and accomplishment, I switch fields entirely and so I was back to square one. Leslie talks about reading articles in her field (also, basically mine from a former life, Derrida anyone?) and not understanding it, finding the lingo frustrating and opaque, but believing that everyone else around her understood it because they made references to other works and seemed to be getting along just fine. Turned out they weren’t, but she had no way of knowing.
When I was in undergrad, it took me a long time, like maybe late junior or senior year, before I really started contributing to discussions. I was overwhelmed by the people around me, who were just as smart or smarter than me. Valedictorians abounded. Sometime in grad school (2nd time around), I got the confidence to just put stuff out there. Most of the time, it was well received, but once, when we were discussing Plato’s cave, I went too far. I kind of knew the allegory of Plato’s cave and what it meant, but hadn’t really looked at it since undergrad or maybe even high school. There I was, nodding and throwing out phrases, when my prof called on me to explain Plato’s cave. I stammered, saying something like, “Well, there’s a cave . . .” It was truly embarrassing. I was being one of those people in Leslie’s class who was pretending to know but who really didn’t. I never did that again. Luckily, I had enough confidence to not worry about putting myself out there again, but I prepared beforehand.
In my current field, I find it embarrassing that I don’t have my degree in my field, similar to Leslie’s current situation. People’s eyes widen when I tell them my background. But, as Mr. Geeky told me years ago when he was trying to convince me to follow the Computer Science path, I was really already doing CS anyway. It wasn’t as much of a leap as I thought it was.
It feels weird to teach other teachers, as I did earlier this week, or to get asked my opinion on something in the field. But, when it comes to teaching, when it comes to paying attention to how students learn and process information, that I know something about. I’m not a content area expert (yet). My students and I learn together a lot of the time. I hope that makes them stronger. It definitely makes me stronger.
My students and I talk about the impostor syndrome quite a bit. Many of them don’t feel confident in their abilities. They’ve already expressed to me that they are worried about taking a first year CS course, despite the fact that they’ve already covered most of that material and then some in my classes. I have to imagine that no boy would feel that way after 3 years of CS in high school. Like Leslie, I try to model for my students. Mostly, I try to model how to figure things out when you don’t know the answer. I model persistence in figuring out a problem, and I model learning new things by being willing to teach things I don’t really know. I hope I can also model for them a way out of the impostor syndrome which makes them not the Plato’s cave idiot I was, but the prepared and honest person I became after that.