30 November 2005

"I Only Paint Fakes," and Offended People

Like many of you, I've ended up on a few listservs that are not so troublesome or voluminous that it merits the effort to unsubscribe, but they are only of peripheral interest. Mostly, it happens when I attend a meeting or seminar during which they pass a sign-up sheet for announcements of future events. Mostly, as it turns out, future events do not seem as interesting as the one that got me to loan out my name.

And so the emails roll in to the inbox, and out to the deleted mail file.

Today, a notice came on one particular list that is run by a professor at my institution about two former(?) students who were recently written up in minor news outlets. One of them, Diane Zorn, is engaged in a particularly interesting line of research concerning academics who suffer from what she calls, "The Imposter Phenomenon." As she describes it, the Imposter Phenomenon is
"an internal experience of intellectual phoniness common among high-achieving people". She has found that IP can affect anyone from PhD candidates preparing for their comprehensives to established and tenured professors. "At one workshop a professor who was two years away from retirement told me that he still lived in fear of being revealed as a fraud," said Zorn.
I can relate to this phenomenon, but from a different ground. In my research on Role*, I describe the experience of what I call the "exo-self":
Exo-self is a shorthand for the apparent receptacle of extrinsic motivation. Through my years in corporate life, the social norms of my milieu necessitated external trappings, including demonstrations of affluence, hierarchical status, credentials and accreditations, as sources of personal value and validation. All of these are proxies for the ways in which others might regard me in the social contexts of work/life. That regard became so important to my sense of self that the proxy replaced any internal sense of worth, value or validation. I mistook these proxies as my self; the agglomeration of the proxies thus comprised my exo-self.

...My value instead was reflected in the trappings that adorn the exo-self; the trappings themselves awarded or acquired as a direct result of the external evaluations – sales wins, for example – over which I had relatively little direct influence (despite the prevailing fiction that underlies the salesman’s job), and even less control.

In general, the exo-self reflects not the capabilities or intrinsic worth of the individuals in question, but rather the dominant socio-cultural assessment of how well the individual plays her/his assigned and expected role in society at large, and the particular subculture within that society with which the individual chooses to associate.
I would thus identify Zorn's Imposter Phenomenon with the tensions that exist within an individual among the oppression of assuming her/his exo-self, their unique role* motivating aspects, and the specific roles in which they feel they must perform.

As interesting as is Zorn's work (not to mention the cool connection I can make with my own stuff), that's not the point of this post. The notice of Zorn's article came on the listserv, as I mentioned. One of the people on the list responded by saying, "academics and scholars feel like frauds because THEY ARE. I know it keeps me grounded knowing this simple truth." And then he referred to himself as "the fraud."

I read this statement in two ways. First, I saw it as a satirical commentary on the nature of the roles we all don in the course of our individual professions. Second, I read it as a reminder that we should not take ourselves seriously. Our work, our students, our commitments to each other - those aspects we should absolutely take seriously. Ourselves, never, as that leads to arrogance and the sort of haughty, ivory-towerish detachment of which many academics are accused. Truly great people realize this. Picasso was once apparently asked how many paintings he had created. He responded that the number was around 2000. When told that there were at least 5000 of his paintings for sale in the U.S. alone, he shrugged and said, "I only paint fakes."

The moderator of the list was not so sanguine at the attempted satirical commentary that reveals an important truth. She labelled the comment as "abusive" and said that she would "not tolerate it." The person who posted the comment was not only removed from the list, but a special email was sent to the rest of the list notifying all of the banishment that would undoubtedly prove to have a chilling effect on future commentary. It is within the prerogative of a list moderator to include and exclude whatever s/he would like. However, in this case the moderator is an avowed feminist (and thus nominally interested in promoting non-dominant discourse), and a professor in an institution renowned for encouraging dissenting voices and social justice.

Unfortunately, a sense of humour and an appreciation of the importance of satire to "speak truth to power" doesn't seem to be a prerequisite for her department.

Update: The person was reinstated, as he objected to a "one-strike-you're-out" rule as being unfair. The moderator, however, still deemed the comment objectionable, as she read it as disrespectful to the "vulnerability of intellectual exploration and expression." Given the tremendous privilege that academics enjoy, my reaction to this comment was certainly a raised eyebrow.

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John Bachir said...

Very interesting. I'm glad to see my fears of academia and hierarchical organizations validated by your Role research :). Could you show us more of your work?

Mark said...

Happy to do it. Just check out this post.

Diane said...

Hello Mark,

It seems to me that the differences between our views is captured in the difference between a house seen from the front and a house seen from the back. (No qualitative judgment meant whatsoever with "front" and "back") Our differences in perspective on Impostor Feelings seem to me to be a difference in a "micro" and "macro" way of seeing. "Roles" are an effect of cultures, shared learned behaviours common to groups of people, (in this case, high achievers). Do you agree?

Peace and best wishes,


Mark said...

Thanks for visiting Diane! Yes, I do agree that roles are an effect of culture, learned behaviours and imposed expectations (both externally and internally imposed). My prior work problematizes this, and draws from a proposition that roles can be reversed into resources that enable an individual to create their own power and enablement.

In a way, I flip Descartes from "I think, therefore I am," into "I do therefore I am."

In a sense, it occurs to me that the Imposter Feelings may arise from this construct of "role as resource," in that academics create themselves as such out of the (not entirely whole) cloth of student-role. By embracing the notion that we, ourselves create our selves, rather than having them imposed on us, it is possible (I think) to shed the insecurity.