On Being an Imposter at the Academy

sblaarI love so much about the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion (SBLAAR). I love the way they’re in a different city each year, and this year I loved being back in San Antonio. I love the app that lets me browse through the list of over 1200 sessions and workshops that include everything from practical theology, to careful exegetical studies, to discussions on race, peace, environmental concerns, and much more. I love the publishers’ exhibits of row after row of books at special discounts.

Yet as much as I love all of this, every time I come to these sessions, I also feel like an imposter.

While I wear the official name tag around my neck and carry the official 2016 bag, as a pastor surrounded by academics I still feel out of place. I don’t have a Ph.D. I’m not a doctoral student. I’m not affiliated with a post-secondary school. “Metanarrative,” “didactic,” “obfuscatory,” and other words that I’ve heard over the last few days don’t exactly roll off my tongue. In one session, I was suddenly struck by how much my pink jacket stuck out in the room of dark colours worn by mostly white men.

If you’ve ever felt like a fraud, if you’ve ever been afraid you might be found out for not being who you appear to be, you know what I’m talking about. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified what they called the “Imposter Phenomenon,” which is characterized by persistent self-doubt. Only in my case, feeling like an imposter is not so much self-doubt as it is self-knowledge and an acute sense of being different.

How do you cope when you feel like the proverbial square peg in a round hole? When being different means you don’t quite fit? Here are some of my favorite survival tips:

I remind myself that I don’t need to be the same as everyone else, and in fact not everyone else is the same. At one session, I sat in front of a pastor with 49 years of experience in ministry. In the exhibit hall, I met a woman who teaches preaching. I attended a panel that included a Sikh professor, a freelance journalist, and editors of two online magazines. I am not the same as everyone else, and everyone else isn’t either.

I also remind myself that I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I’m not looking for a job. I don’t have to please a faculty advisor, colleagues, tenure committee, or college administration. I can simply take in the sessions, delight in learning, and be grateful that I can attend as part of my professional development.

I look for friends and friendly faces. I’m glad that my husband and I share a love for SBLAAR, but we rarely take in the same sessions. So even before we arrived, I arranged Saturday and Sunday night suppers with friends, and planned to attend a breakfast meeting hosted by Regent College where I did my grad studies. I was glad to bump into a few other people I knew as I looked for books or walked in the hallways between sessions.

When the rarefied atmosphere of academia seems too much, it helps to take breaks even if it’s only walking a few streets over to the food court for lunch, even if it’s only to listen to the news and remind myself that life goes on outside the bubble of academia. Square pegs in round holes or whatever shape we’re in, we’re all part of this same wonderful and wounded world.

I remind myself that the difference that makes me feel like an imposter is also one of the main reasons I come to SBLAAR. I want to challenge myself, to engage the vocabulary and concepts that don’t come naturally to me. In one session I appreciated the discussion on how specialized language can at times alienate people, and at other times can allow us to communicate with greater precision. I also find that jargon can stretch me and challenge me in a good way.

I realize that others might also feel out of their element. Like the grad student whose plane was delayed and arrived much later and more flustered than she meant to be. Like the black scholar who said he was reminded again of how white academia can be. Younger, older, from big name schools or labouring in obscurity, newbie or experienced traveller, scholar activists who have received death threats, those developing protocols for their college to limit casualties in the event of a random shooter– each person faces unique challenges.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: These are a few ways that I cope with feeling like an imposter. Have you ever felt like an imposter at an event or in a particular role? It’s not an uncommon feeling in a new job or even as a new parent or when moving to a new community. What helps you cope when you feel that way?

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Categories: Church and Ministry

8 replies

  1. Thanks for this, April. I feel like an imposter at these events too, and I’m in that scholarly track. I was actually thinking about this early today, and wondering whether it is the right kind of investment for me. It’s good to hear the universe respond back and say, “Well, maybe. But hadn’t you think of where your heart is at too?”
    My one exception on the conference front is at the C.S. Lewis and Inklings events I have attended, and Mythcon (which has some overlap).

    • Thanks for sharing – it’s a bit of a relief to know that, and confirms my sense that even those who might seem to most “fit in” may not feel that way. It does raise questions of investment and priority for me too. I didn’t attend last year since there was already too much going on, including five deaths in or related to my congregation around that time, my manuscript of Lenten Bible studies, and life in general. I’ll have to think about next year when the meetings will be in Boston.

  2. I think it’s fab that you go April! I wish more pastors actually engaged in challenges like this. Thanks for the reflection. I feel like the “imposter syndrome” has all kinds of applications to ordinary defensiveness: the degree to which we become aware of our tendency to protect ourselves from the implicit challenges things like “lack of credentials” or “lack of particular skills” offer is largely the degree to which we are freer to open ourselves to others and the Spirit. That’s my working theory, anyway 😊 I love the fact that this phenomenon can work both ways. I’ve always been challenged by the fact that a world-famous theologian like Karl Barth regularly preached to prisoners. I’m betting he felt like an imposter!

    • Oh I love your working theory! While some might want to do away with the discomfort that comes with feeling like an imposter, it can actually be a good thing in humility and reliance on God. I appreciate the way you put it in being “freer to open ourselves to others and the Spirit.” I didn’t realize that about Karl Barth and wonder how his experience of preaching to prisoners also shaped his theology. Thanks for your comments.

  3. I’ve been to at least 20 of these. The imposter feeling is probably the greatest fear of many academics – that someone will stand up during a session and denounce you as a fraud. Academia is significantly fear-driven. It’s part of the metanarrative 😉

    • Oh! That means I probably “fit in” more than I sometimes think I do, which is a sobering thought. That also explains a lot, which I gather is the point of any metanarrative. Thanks for stopping by and for the sharp observation.

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