Imposter Syndrome and How to Ignore It (or at least not let it inhibit you)

My goal in life is to be as confident as Gustave.

A peculiar conundrum that often accompanies highly successful people is the fear that they do not deserve their achievement. They doubt their intellect or skills and believe that their success is a charade. They tell themselves that they’re really not that smart or talented, but that they’ve merely managed to fool everyone into thinking they are. Worst of all, they constantly worry that they’ll mess up, and that everyone will suddenly realize they’ve been duped all along.

Such are the feelings that accompany Imposter Syndrome, something that many a graduate student will either be familiar with or have experienced. I myself have been dealing with it in one form or another since third grade. I’m not sure why it develops, though living and working in a high-achieving culture probably aggravates it. When you’re surrounded by colleagues doing great work all the time, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ll ever measure up.

It was especially prevalent at Williams, where all of my classmates were brilliant and talented. I remember thinking that they must have read the wrong application, gotten mine mixed up with some more deserving person. I couldn’t have possibly been good enough to get in on my own merits. And so on and so on.

These days, however, Imposter Syndrome doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. It’s still there, but it doesn’t hold the same power over my confidence that it once did. How have I managed to control it? What changed between Williams and William and Mary?

First, I graduated from Williams. As stressful as being a student there could be sometimes, completing my degree bolstered my confidence enormously. Even more than finishing my Master’s, working as a curator for several years boosted my confidence. Museum work demands not only intellect and skill, but flexibility. You may go in prepared to write exhibition labels, but you end up giving a tour to unexpected patrons instead. Or the roof is leaking and you have to clear out a gallery of paintings. Or the electricians have come to work on the air conditioner and you have to explain why it has to be able to run at a certain temperature. For me at least, there was no time to worry about whether I fooling people into thinking I was competent; I just had to do it. And the more I worked at these different tasks, the more confident I became in my own abilities.

As contradictory as it sounds, being aware of my own limitations has further boosted my confidence. When I was a graduate student at Williams, I thought I needed to know everything, and that people would think I was stupid if I wasn’t familiar with a topic. As I learned through my museum work though, nobody knows everything. It was impossible to be an expert on every single aspect of the museum’s operations, whether it was bookkeeping, buildings maintenance, or finances. Indeed, a lot of my job consisted of finding the right experts for various inquiries, whether it was a good lighting company or an expert on Maynard Dixon paintings. I realized it isn’t necessarily your current knowledge that always counts, but your ability to research a question and find out, whether it was doing it yourself or finding the right expert.

This experience has all helped make graduate school much more manageable this time around. I know I don’t know everything, but that’s okay, I still have my own experiences and expertise to offer. So does everyone else. Someone might be more familiar with a certain theory or author than I am. Conversely, I can offer suggestions on successfully organizing an exhibition. Together, we can all learn from each other.

So what are my suggestions about dealing with Imposter Syndrome? Everyone has their own journey, but here’s what helps me:

  1. You deserve to be here: You got where you are because of your abilities and hard work. Don’t let your doubts tell you otherwise, and if they do, don’t listen to them.
  2. You’re not alone: While everyone around you may look like they have it together, they’re probably experiencing the same self-doubt you are. Opening up and talking wither others about Imposter Syndrome can be a great way to begin connecting with other people and getting in touch with their humanity.
  3. Experience: For me, a key part of getting my Imposter Syndrome under control was to get out of my comfort zones and gain experience. The more I did that, the easier it became to ignore the self-doubt because I knew I could accomplish these things. Don’t apply for a job or a volunteer position because you have all the qualifications. No one is ever perfectly qualified for any job, because we’re all fallible humans. Instead, go for the opportunities where you can learn or perfect new skills.
  4. Your job is not your life: When your dissertation or your job becomes your primary identity, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect at it, otherwise you feel like there’s something wrong with you as a person. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate, but your work is not your life. Learning to create boundaries between your work and other facets of your life makes it easier to ignore Imposter Syndrome because you know that’s not your only means of self-expression and worth.

I still hear the old Imposter Syndrome now and then, but nowadays I don’t let it hold me back, because I already know that I can succeed.

Ongoing Art Project: Colors of Summer

As we head into autumn, I thought I’d show you some highlights from the summer edition of my daily abstractions project.

Colors of June

In some ways, summer has been the most challenging season for me to paint so far. After the rapid and dramatic transformations of the spring, with new leaves and flowers appearing practically every day, experiencing week after week of dense, green vegetation initially seemed a little monotonous. Nothing is stagnant, of course, so there were still plenty of changes, but they were comparatively more subtle.

Colors of July

The other challenge was the weather itself. With the climate being so warm and humid at this time of year, I usually only go outside during the early morning or late evening. As a result, I simply wasn’t noticing as many changes because I was only seeing the landscape during the times of day, when the sunlight is pretty limited. And when I was outside, I mostly noticed my discomfort rather than the landscape around me.

Our trip to New England brought new subject matter such as tide pools, family barns, and stained glass windows.

All that said, I still managed to paint something different every day. A summer trip to Maine provided new subject matter (and cooler temperatures) that revitalized my interest in painting, for starters. When I was home in Williamsburg, I looked to the morning or evening skies for quite a few sketches, but I also started zeroing in on details like tree bark, things I’ve noticed for a while but didn’t paint while all the spring flowers were in bloom.

Butterfly and birds’ wings are always good sources of inspiration.

Not that there’s any shortage of flowers. Colonial Williamsburg takes its gardening very seriously, so there have been blooms across the grounds all summer. The crepe myrtles have also been in bloom, providing delightful jolts of purple, pink, and white to a primarily green landscape. Their mottled bark has also been a source of inspiration, as they’ve been shedding recently to reveal fresh, new layers. And with the flowers come butterflies and hummingbirds, those delicate jewels of the sky, as some more flourish-inclined writer might say. During one visit to the Palace Garden, I managed to see at least three different varieties of swallowtail, in addition to painted ladies and other species, which was absolutely delightful.

Left: scene from the Windsor Castle Trail at Smithfield, which Brandon and I walked one day. Right: fields from the Virginia Capital trail, with the heads of deer peeking above the leaves.

I’ve also had plenty of opportunities to explore new places. Since moving to the Pointe, I’ve been taking bike rides along the Virginia Capital Trail, which provides all kinds of new scenes and subjects to paint.

Left: from a scroll of a koi leaping up a waterfall, on view in “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” at the National Gallery. Middle: the Space Window from the National Cathedral. Right: The main sitting room in the tea house at the Japanese Embassy.

A trip to Washington, DC during the Keio program also took me out of my regular environment. While most of what I paint is based on what I see outdoors, these three blocks take inspiration from stained glass windows, painted scrolls, and a Japanese tea house.

Three different blocks incorporating splatter: tree bark, summer gardens, and old bricks.

Beyond painting different subject matter, I’ve also been experimenting with new types of mark-making, specifically splatter. What I’ve been doing recently is taking a brush, loading it with watered-down paint or ink, and flicking the bristles across the surface. It’s been particularly effective for abstractions based on tree bark or weathered bricks covered in lichen and moss. Obviously, splatter painting has been around for a long time, but as someone who has always felt compelled to meticulously render every painting with tiny brushstrokes, exploring this type of mark-making is a big step forward for me in my ongoing exploration of abstraction.

Colors of August

So that’s what I’ve been up to this summer. Stay tuned to see how I finish out the year with the colors of autumn.

What I’m TAing this Semester

When you’re an American Studies graduate student at William and Mary, your assistantships change every year. Last year I worked at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, where I helped out with inventories and drafted an exhibition proposal using the map collection. This year, I’m in the classroom serving as a Teaching Assistant for a class called Utopia in the Americas.

Encompassing literature, history, and film, this one-semester course looks at Utopian communities as they have manifested in the United States, particularly during the antebellum period. Through specific case studies, students analyze which qualities people seek in a perfect society, what you need to do to achieve it, and equally importantly, what you have to give up, whether it be individualism, private property, diversity, freedom, or something else. Utopian societies also offer an alternative lens for examining American history more broadly, as they illuminate the kinds of problems and issues people have endeavored to ameliorate by establishing brand new communities.

Thomas More’s Utopia. Image courtesy of https://streetsofsalem.com/2012/03/26/utopia-not-dystopia/

So far we’ve been looking at early examples of Utopian literature to get a sense of its history as a form. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, we read Thomas More’s Utopia, considered one of the most influential examples of the genre. This week, we’ll be reading The Tempest in conjunction with watching a classic sci-fi film that takes inspiration from the story, Forbidden Planet.

The iconic poster for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, though the somewhat ominous imagery is a bit misleading. Robby the Robot is no menacing machine, but a benevolent character dedicated to serving humans (there’s even a sequence in the movie where Dr. Morbius demonstrates Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics with him). Indeed, the only time he carries anybody in the film is the ship’s doctor after he overloads his brain on Krell technology, but I guess that wasn’t sexy enough for the poster. Image courtesy of https://www.ebay.ca/itm/Forbidden-Planet-1956-Original-Movie-Sci-Fi-Poster-Spanish-Herald-First-Release-/133028007314?oid=170951278501

As an American Studies course, this class is interdisciplinary in content, so in addition to literature, we’ll also consider historical utopian communities. Examples include New Harmony, a community founded in Indiana by businessman and philanthropist Robert Owen, and the Shakers, whose religious practices underscored gender equality, communal living, and celibacy. While a lot of these communities may sound idealistic to us, they also addressed important social issues that still affect us today, including gender equality, family structure, and comfortable standards of living. These communities may have underestimated the practical challenges of establishing new social orders, but at the same time, we can still learn from their example when addressing ongoing inequalities.

While the course focuses primarily on the nineteenth century, we’ll also move into more recent material from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In particular, we’ll explore the negative counterpart of utopia, the dystopian community, and ask why the concept of utopia-gone-wrong has become so prominent in literature and film. Among the films we’ll watch during the second half of the class is WALL-E, which playfully explores the overlaps between utopian and dystopian places.

More than a story about a cute robot, this film explores both utopian and dystopian communities while commenting on the consequences of rampant consumerism. Image courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb4sMcyzCeg

So that’s the content, but what do I actually do as a TA? As a Teaching Assistant, my job is to help students learn not only the content of the course, but to hone their critical reading, writing, and discussion skills. This means I attend all the lectures and read the course materials so that I know what material is being covered. Since the professor has to go out of town later this month, I’ll give one of the lectures myself, using her notes as a guide. I’ve also been encouraged to give a mini-lecture later on the semester, so I plan on talking about art colonies, given my background in art history.

Attending lectures only constitutes one small part of my job though. I also read, comment on, and grade short papers written in response to course materials, as well as a more formal essay later in the course. In my comments, I usually highlight ideas that I’d like students to explore more deeply, praise them on instances where they used specific examples from texts to support their arguments, and all-around encourage them to speculate on the works they’re reading rather than simply summarize. I also lead weekly discussion sections where students talk about the materials they’re reading in greater depth. I write discussion questions based on the readings, but I also compile and synthesize questions that the students have written and posted online in advance.

Sabbathday Lake, the one Shaker community that remains inhabited. Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Gloucester,_Maine

While this isn’t the first time I’ve been a TA, that was ten years ago, so going back to the classroom, especially after working in museums for so many years, has definitely been a novel experience so far. Yet it hasn’t been as scary as you might think. Since I’m already in my 30s, I’m not as close in age to the undergraduates as a lot of my fellow graduate students, so I already have an advantage in getting the students to take me seriously. Being older also means that I have more life experience in general, which definitely helps with my confidence. My session as a Classroom Instructor for the Keio Program also helped me get comfortable in a classroom setting, especially when it comes to facilitating discussions. I’ve also found that I have a lot of transferable skills from my previous museum experience. This is especially true in relation to the time I spent giving tours to school groups, as I used questions and interactive discussions rather than lectures to talk about art with students. I’ve still got a lot to learn, of course, but I also know that’s true of anyone in any profession, so it doesn’t worry me the way it might have a few years ago.

So that’s what I’ll be up to this semester. While I was grateful to have the familiarity of the museum environment through my assistantship last year, I’m glad to have the chance to be in the classroom now. After all, one of the reasons why I decided to return to academia was to see whether I actually have any interest or aptitude in a teaching career, so this is a great place to try it out. Even if I decide to return to museums or similar institutions, the academic job environment is not the most promising, after all, I can definitely apply the skills I’ll develop through teaching to other types of work.

Right now, it’s too early to tell how I feel about teaching, but I’ve been enjoying TAing so far, and learning about fascinating communities in the process, so I can’t complain. More importantly, though, I hope my students are enjoying the course, or at least learning from it.

What I’m Taking This Final (for classes, that is) Semester

Now that the fall semester is underway, it’s once again time to talk about the classes I’m taking this term. As you may have noticed from the title, this is my final semester of coursework. While I’m far from finished with the program (more on than in a future post), it’s still a significant milestone. Once you’ve completed classes, it’s on to qualifying exams, and finally the dissertation itself.

The semester’s only just started though, so for now, coursework still defines much of my academic schedule.

Whereas last year I took three classes each term, for the American Studies Program at William and Mary, the load drops down to two during the final semester of coursework. It’s understood that you’ll be using the extra time to finish putting your reading lists together, so believe me, it doesn’t feel terribly different from a typical semester.

This book considers the intersection between race and economy through the lens of mobility, or rather the lack of it through limited public transportation. Having spent last semester reading about highway development and its often negative effects on communities of color, the chapter from this book was particularly interesting to me.

The first class I’m taking is Movement, Mobility, and Migration, which looks at transit through an interdisciplinary lens. So far we’ve read articles in anthropology, history, and philosophy, with the earliest work being Aristotle, and the most recent being published in 2017. From the vibrations of atoms to post-Katrina displacement, the course, pardon the pun, covers a lot of ground, but I’m really excited to be taking this class. Given my interest in travel infrastructures, in many ways, this is the course I’ve been waiting for, and I think it will introduce me to methodological frameworks that will greatly strengthen my future research.

This book argues that the term “religion” itself, and more specifically its distinction from secular life, is a modern one arising out of the theological debates of the Reformation.

The second course is Religion in America to 1900. Unlike the other courses I’ve taken at William and Mary, this class doesn’t address my primary research interests, but I’ve long been intrigued and confounded by religion, so I see it as both a palate cleanser and an opportunity to explore different interests. Since the course operates by having students write discussion questions ahead of time, I also see it as a chance to practice skimming books while still gleaning enough significant details to create substantive inquiries, skills I’ll definitely need when I’m working through my reading lists next semester. So far our readings have been covering the problematic nature of the term “religion” itself, especially when applied to ancient or indigenous cultures that have been subjected to colonial infrastructures. More recently, we’ve been reading about the indigenous communities at Cahokia, Caddo, and other North American locales.

I see this semester as a mixture between exam prep and research prep. Whereas Religion in America will help me further refine my critical reading skills, Movement, Migration, and Mobility will be another opportunity to think about my research through new methodological frameworks. Either way, I see both classes as a way to work on practical skills while learning fascinating content. What’s not to like?

Life in Virginia: One Year Later

It was a little more than a year ago that Brandon and I left our jobs in Roswell to start a new life in Virginia. So has it been for us so far?

One of the first pictures I took after moving here.

It’s definitely been an eventful year. We’ve lived in two different places, with our most recent move happening in July. Brandon’s held two different positions at Colonial Williamsburg, first as a Public Safety officer, and as Senior Preparator since December. I’ve finished a year of classes, presented at two conferences, and am currently working on compiling together comps lists while embarking on my final semester of classes (more on that in a future post). We certainly aren’t bored.

But do we actually like living here? Actually, yes, we do.

Virginia is actually a good central location for us. With my family based in New England, and Brandon’s in Florida, Williamsburg is about as close to halfway between the two places as we can get. Since we’re both from the east, moreover, Virginia seems familiar to both of us while also being a little different.

And the humidity? Actually, it doesn’t bother me as much as you might expect for someone who lived in a dry climate for several years, primarily because I enjoy the vegetation here so much. The only way you can support this much lush greenery is to have a lot of moisture in the air, so whenever I feel the humidity getting to me I just take a look around at where I’m living. Virginia is definitely not the high desert, and that’s one of the reasons why I like it. It’s different.

There’s also plenty to do around here. Between the University students, retirees, and tourists who populate this town, there’s no shortage of restaurants, and there are markets and other special events as well. The higher population density also means that’s there are more towns and cities to explore compared to southeast New Mexico, whether it’s Richmond, Smithfield, or more mountainous places like Roanoke or Charlottesville. And of course there’s Washington DC, and other cities like New York and Philadelphia are only a few hours away.

But what about Roswell? Do Brandon and I miss anything there?

It’s people we miss rather than places. Neither of us envisioned Roswell as a longterm home, so we never felt especially attached to the place itself. There were definitely people that we became close too, however, and we miss them. Our landlords, John and Branka, are exceptionally kind and generous people, more like family than property managers. Brandon and I also miss the camaraderie we had with our colleagues at the Roswell Museum. Finding collaborators you both like and work well with doesn’t happen terribly often, so Brandon and I knew we’d miss that team dynamic when we left. There are other coworkers and friends too that we think about; thanks to social media, it’s easy to keep track of what they’re up to these days.

I’ll also admit there’s a part of me that misses the authority that came with my title. I like not having to worry about a museum’s exhibition schedule, but it’s empowering to be in charge of a department too.

Yet we don’t lament the past. Sure, we made some great connections in Roswell and worked on some great projects, but we’re also doing exciting work here, and establishing important new connections here. Brandon’s been forming quite the professional network at Colonial Williamsburg as its Senior Preparator, and through him, I’ve been able to meet curators, conservators, and educators there as well. I also like my classmates at William and Mary, and have been learning a lot about different academic perspectives and disciplines through them.

So we might have given up a lot to come here, but it’s definitely been a good decision. We may not be here forever, but for now, we plan on staying here until I finish the program. After that, who knows, but for now, this works fine.