On Impostor Syndrome

Recently, I told my best friend I suffered from impostor syndrome less than another friend because I was more self-confident. She pointed out that we both expressed the same anxieties over and over again, and that neither of us was any less out of the hole than the other. After that reality check, I started reflecting on how ambivalent I still am about my capacities as an academic.

Many highly-skilled people, especially in intellectual fields like academia, live in constant anxiety to be discovered as impostors, and that no matter how highly respected they or their work are. The Wikipedia entry for Impostor Syndrome gives an excellent definition:


Impostor syndrome[1] is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.[2]

That last sentence–about high-achieving women–refers to a 1978 study by Clance and Imes. The authors argue that women suffering from the syndrome can be classified into two categories. In the first, a girl is born into a family in which a sibling or relative is branded as “the bright one”, notably because they do not need to study or work to thrive academically. As a consequence, the girl grows up to believe that she is necessarily the “dumb” one, no matter how successful her own accomplishments are. In the second category, a girl is on the contrary praised for everything she does and often hears how talented she is. When she grows up and fails at certain tasks, she becomes doubtful about the image of herself her parents created. As a result, she doubts every one of her accomplishments.

Now, I hear your cries: it IS a very old study and this argument sounds like a good ol’ either/or fallacy that cannot accurately represent the issue. True. But I identify at least partially with the second category: in my family, I am the “bright one” (first-generation college student, first to go into graduate school) and I was told repeatedly by my parents about my great early reading skills. I do suffer from periodic anxiety that others will find out that I actually have not read enough to claim to be an English PhD student, and I have a recurring tendency to rationalize positive feedback by internally arguing that it is the result of luck, good timing, others’ benevolence, and/or pity. In fact, my second reaction to any positive recognition of my work (after pride & joy) is suspicion and rationalization (“he is only praising your work because he doesn’t really know your field” or “the American award culture is vain and meaningless” [that last one may be a little true]).

Overall though, I rarely doubt my abilities and recognize that I am an intelligent and highly capable intellectual. But these realizations have come to me after a lot of work identifying these logical fallacies and developing self-confidence. With the help of my advisers, I have worked hard to stop apologizing, to take confidence in my ideas, to drop needlessly hesitant turns of phrases such as “I think/believe that,” and to acknowledge that these anxieties are unfounded.

The thing about impostor syndrome is that it hides a very simple truth: no one cares about you and your work as much as you do**. It is a hard reality because it means that anxieties like mine that positive feedback is disingenuous are partially true. The purpose of feedback is to produce hopefully productive criticism, not to bless you with approval and praise. Reviewers and professors cannot care enough–enough for your desire to be acknowledged as an expert–that feedback can be entirely satisfying. In other words, the ratio of time, energy, and effort you put into any piece of work cannot be matched by the ratio of time, energy, and effort a reviewer can put in their feedback. Therefore, you are perpetually unsatisfied.

But this truism also gives me relief, because once you start acknowledging that only you can give yourself the approval you crave, life gets easier (most of the times). Since no one cares about me or my work as much as me, it only depends on me to do that work as best and I can and to accept the fact that I will never get the approval I need from others. Another thing I’ve come to realize is that there is no point in time where you will be crowned an “expert,” for if that was the case tenured professors would not suffer from impostor’s syndrome (which they do, of course). Just like actors who win the Oscar don’t stop trying to get next year’s Oscar, there is no point in your long academic life where you will stop reaching for the best–and that’s a good thing.

**I learned this fact from my adviser, Pamela Cheek, at the University of New Mexico.

Films I watch: Ex Machina (2015)

Dir. Alex Garland.

If you’ve seen the trailer of Ex Machina, you know the plot follows the one white boy genius programmer hired on a secret mission by the one white boy computer genius in a high-tech cabin the woods. Caleb, the programmer, discovers quickly that he is meant to meet and test an AI that looks entirely too human. From this apparently simple and overused storyline you would be entirely justified in rolling your eyes and predicting every twist and turn of the movie.

But if you’ve watched the trailer, you also know that something goes wrong somewhere in that neat little story. Ex Machina does not follow the usual line of questioning on humanity that goes along with movies on cyborgs, AIs, and androids–the best of which are Blade Runner, A.I., I, Robot, etc. Instead, Ex Machina is an intense psychological thriller with the right amount of unexpected twists and even one or two fist-in-the-air moments. Alicia Vikander, who plays the AI named Ava, acts the part superbly and, even though my partner made fun of me for about ten hours for saying this, Soyona Mizuno is excellent as the wordless Kyoko [more on the fucked upness of Orientalism here later]. The soundtrack to the film is perfectly chilling, and the mix of high technology and wilderness (it was filmed in England) makes an ideal setting for such a huis clot.

Now for the spoilers. Cover your eyes! Major spoilers ahead!

Caleb has “sessions” with Ava to test out whether or not she could pass as human, even while knowing she is artificial. Expectedly, he slowly falls in love with her and she seemingly reciprocates his feelings. Meanwhile, he gradually learns to distrust Nathan, the Google-like CEO who hired him, as Ava warns Caleb not to trust him. Caleb discovers that Ava is not the first AI made by Nathan but one of many artificial women he has made. The previous versions, which include an AI in an Asian woman’s body and another version in a Black woman’s body, have all gone insane from being kept locked inside their rooms. In a bone-chilling scene, one entirely destroys  her arms trying to break the the glass walls of her prison. It is also revealed that Kyoko herself, a (sexual) servant who is mute, is an AI (presumably still around because she cannot speak). Decided to save Ava, Caleb devises a plan to recode the security codes of the house while Nathan is drunkenly passed out. Ava escapes her room and convinces Kyoko–until then extremely passive and obedient–to help her kill Nathan. In a glacial scene, Kyoko and Ava stab him and watch him die. Before he does so, Nathan destroys Kyoko and cuts Ava’s arm off. Ava finds Caleb (knocked out by Nathan) and tells him to stay here. Meanwhile she takes off parts of the deactivated AIs she found in Nathan’s bedroom closets for herself—an arm, skin, hair. Caleb watches her through the glass wall, hypnotized by her gradually fleshed–and naked–body. Finally, in the best plot twist of the century, Ava locks Caleb in and leaves him, her prison, and her secret identity as an AI behind. In the last shots we have of him, he helplessly tries to break the glass walls.

Besides the obviously interesting story and gorgeous graphics, what I like the most about this movie was that it successfully subverts every expected twist: the smart nerdy white boy does not get the girl–he is fooled by her, manipulated for the best reasons. The arrogant white male genius who played God and created sexual slaves and play toys is destroyed by his own self-confidence: the sweet, seemingly dumb Kyoko literally stabs him in the back, revenge for her voicelessness and imprisonment. I also loved that the movie really isn’t about what it means to be human but rather, it answers frankly the question: what would happen if we did successfully create creatures so human as to be exactly the same as us? Most likely, they’d try to escape our control and would not hesitate to kill to do so.

Now for the parts that were hugely problematic (hey, I’m an academic!). It’s hard to know where to start. The only characters of color in this movie were almost entirely silent (the one Asian AI has a scene in which she screams one line) and they all die. Kyoko is a literal embodiment of Orientalism, the theory developed by Edward Said, and which centers on how Euro-American narratives create radical otherness via exoticization. So, yeah, whenever you have a silent modern version of a Geisha who cooks sushi for you and that you can use as a sex slave, you’re pretty much fucking exotifying her 100%. Although Kyoko does get her redeeming moment when she stabs Nathan, it’s kind of hard to cheer for it because she stills says absolutely nothing and then immediately dies. And it doesn’t end there. The one Black AI that Nathan makes has no head and is clearly an unsuccessful model, since she is incapable to hold a pen, much less write or draw. It’s hard to do worse in terms of representation, but I’m going to anticipate your potential remark here: Nathan has made his AIs based on porn movies (which he admits at some point) so obviously it can’t be good, and the point of the movie is that of female empowerment, since Ava kills him and leaves the dumb one behind. Yes. But.

A movie can have simultaneously feminist characters and themes AND fucked up representation of race and gender. I’ve already mentioned some of the racial problems of the movie, but it gets worse when Ava actually appropriates body parts from various “dead” AIs, including the Asian AI’s arm and skin. The whole film itself can hardly be called feminist, since it largely fails the Bechdel test and since Ava does not, say, reanimate the AIs or anything but just leaves everything behind (even idiot Caleb, who, even if he had annoying wet dreams about being a knight in shining armor, did not particularly deserve to die horribly).


Overall, I truly enjoyed the movie and I would recommend it: the suspense maintains till the end and the ending is surprising. In spite of its shortcomings in terms of representations of race and gender, Ava is still a badass female protag and we need more characters like her!

Post Semester Blues

The topic of anxiety and depression in graduate school is not new. In the humanities & social sciences as well as STEM fields, graduate students increasingly admit to feeling sad, depressed, anxious, lonely, and with low self-esteem. Graduate school is hard. It demands constant work, time, and effort in an extremely competitive environment, and since the academic job market is very sparse (especially in the humanities, whose students are the most likely to go on to an academic career), the light at the end of the tunnel can appear very dim.

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There is a lot of blogs and blog posts from current graduate students, post-docs, drop-outs, and faculty who have written at length on the topic. Some of the recurring themes are about the hostile environment of programs, difficult relationships with advisers and colleagues, low or inexistent funding, loneliness. In my case though, I feel incredibly happy in my own program. It’s weird to start a post on depression with saying this, but it’s true. I get along very well with my cohort and I am generally happy with the classes I take and the classes I teach. I have two committee members who specialize in my field and we have a good relationship. I love my own work. I have a husband who is also in the program and we live in a comfortable house not too far from campus. I have a lot of friends here and in other parts of the country.

 

My problems begin when I’m on a break from the program. After the semester end, especially in the summer, I feel exhausted, which is of course unsurprising after spending 17 weeks working intensely. But my exhaustion does not stop. I am lethargic and weepy; I sleep too much and lie on the couch. I can’t muster the energy to read, even read for pleasure, which is my favorite activity. After a few days I don’t even watch TV. The easiest, most mundane activity–say doing  laundry or cooking a simple meal–demands a lot of energy. I sometimes refuse to go outside at all. I feel self-pity, and that makes me angry and frustrated.

 

I have been trying to pinpoint the moment these feelings emerge. For the past three summers I have suffered from parts or all of these feelings, and, in insight, I think it begins immediately after finals week. It starts with exhaustion, which I rationalize straight away (“it’s only normal you’re tired! You’ve worked hard all semester and now your body must recuperate”). And that’s true—in fact I often come down with a little cold on vacation because my body is indeed recovering for long periods of stress and little self-care. But I also use this as an excuse to relax and do nothing. And while I think it’s definitely important to allow yourself to not to do anything in order to recharge your creative batteries, in my case in particular, doing nothing brings about more doing nothing. And when I do nothing, I’m depressed.

 

I am what you’d call a workaholic. Like most graduate students, I work a lot daily, and I love it. I love going to classes and I love reading & writing. I’m one of these students who is sad that the semester is ending, and is excited to see a new semester start. My favorite place to be is the library. I am constantly trying to organize writing & reading groups and do collaborative work. I write seminar papers a long time in advance and spend a lot of time editing them. I’m not saying this to boast—I suspect the majority of graduate students to be like me, only they veil it with pretend disdain and a cool attitude.

I am writing this down because it is my personality: I am a highly enthusiastic, perfectionist intellectual who likes to spend a lot of time thinking, reading, writing, and conversating. I wouldn’t do anything else. I’ve read some of the articles from the blog “100 reasons NOT to go to graduate school,” (and many others like it), and to most of their (legitimate) complaints about the stark job market, high competition, hard work, I answer: but I loooove it. I would not regret going to grad school even if I ended up with no career. I am not getting my PhD in order to get a job; I am getting it because I love studying. I truly believe that being a PhD student is a job in itself, not solely a process toward something. And I am saying this while keeping in mind the considerable privileges I possess: living comfortably, being in a good, small program, being in a stable relationship, having no children and no elderly parent to take care of, being a white, able-bodied woman.

 

So now, why am I depressed comes the summer? I think part of it is because the transition from high workload to nothingness. The stark contrast between having deadlines and projects to do, to staying at home and having the “freedom” of doing whatever you choose is simply too much for me. I can’t cope with the open-endedness of nonsemester time, or at least not if I let myself be. Doing nothing brings about more doing nothing.

 

I have learned that I cannot let myself do nothing, not even for one day, or I will get caught into a lethargic state that not even my partner can get me out of. And I realize that it may sound pathetic to feel depressed over having nothing to do. Countless times, I’ve told myself, and others have told me, “just start something! Read a book! Knit a scarf!,” but it is incredibly hard to make yourself do something when you feel depressed. Lots of writers have described how hard it is to even get out of bed, or to complete small tasks. See Hyperbole & a Half’s visual account here: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2011/10/adventures-in-depression.html

 

In order to avoid repeating the vicious cycle of doing nothing, this year I’ve taken action before the semester even ended. I’ve planned a virtual writing group with friends that I know will check on me and the objectives I’ve set for myself. I established a reading list. And I’ve done something every day since the last day of class. I’ve also compiled a list of truisms and little pieces of advice that you may find useful if you are going through similar things. They might be useful especially if you are staying at home and if you have no other occupation like a part-time job or volunteering or something like that.

Do something every day. It does not have to be anything important. Make a list of things to do for today and try to make another list for tomorrow.

You are not exhausted. Not truly. You should rest, but don’t oversleep and don’t let yourself establish a bad sleeping pattern. Every time you tell yourself you are too tired to do something, get up and walk around. Make yourself do it.

Find an excuse to take a walk. I am not an athletic person, so walking is the only remotely physical thing I do. And I have a puppy, so for me walking is a daily must. If you don’t, try to get someone to walk with you, or alternatively walk somewhere with a purpose. Prepare a good playlist or listen to podcasts or an audiobook.

Make a reading list of the books you’ve been wanting to read all semester. Make a movie list. Establish times of the day to read or watch movies.

Talk to people every day. This can be over social media, the phone, or in person.

Write that postcard to grandma or send your mom these pictures you’ve promised her. Do these little things you always say you don’t have time for. They may be boring but they are something to do and you will feel greatly accomplished for doing them.

If you can, buy new school supplies like notebooks. There are few things more enjoyable and it’ll make you want to write in it.

Do a little every day. Do not panic over great projects that demand a lot of energy like reviewing an article or writing an entire essay. Instead, have small objectives for every day, like write 500 words or read 50 pages. It’s better to do lots of tiny things than nothing at all.

Look over what you’ve achieved, not matter how small, and be proud.

Some Thoughts on Puppygate

A lot has been written on the recent controversy around the famous Hugo awards. (Here’s a good summary, in case you’ve missed it: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/04/13/1376743/-Freeping-the-Hugo-Awards)

I mean, a LOT. Here’s George R. R. Martin having an on going conversation about it with Larry Correira, the originator of the Sad Puppies group: http://grrm.livejournal.com/420090.html

Some emcees and nominees have even refused to come. Here’s Connie Willis (recipient of ELEVEN Hugos) explaining why she won’t be presenting: http://azsf.net/cwblog/?p=116

And here’s John Scalzi’s take on it: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2015/04/04/a-note-about-the-hugo-nominations-this-year/

These are just some extracts of what’s been said–feel free to browse some more. The basic idea advanced by these puppygaters (who seem to come for the most part from the tragi-comic gamergate) is that SF/F/H has become invaded by writers from minority groups who fail to write “real” SF but are still celebrated solely because they are “diversity”.

Now a lot of people have pointed out that:

1. the Hugos represent a very specified sub-section of hardcore fandom (since you must pay $40 to even vote), whose decisions will certainly do little upon the mainstream fandom (the people who buy and read SF sporadically).

2. while it is true that the field is becoming more inclusive (in the past, as you may know, SF like most genres, has been majoritively white, male, and straight), it is still majoritively white, male and straight. Just look at any TV or cinematic adaptation. Even mainstream books written by women (like Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Divergent or Twilight etc. etc.) are still white and straight.

3. in academia (and I am mentioning it here because that’s where I am working and writing from), SF has been celebrated as an important literary field for decades, but the struggle was real. One of the reasons SF has become big in academia is precisely the potential radicality of SF narratives, their ability to transcend the status quo, to imagine other universes in which the same old oppressions didn’t exist. God knows traditional SF has always been problematic; for a start, SF has always been consistent with imperialism and the colonial project (See John Reider’s book Post-colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction).

It is needless to repeat here that the idea that white straight men are being booed off any genre, any publishing opportunity, anything, is ridiculous. What baffles me is the either/or logical fallacy (you can either write traditional SF with straight white guys saving the world, or you’re just not a real fan/writer). Underlying it is the idea that SF is a static field, that the meaning of science fiction is somehow written in stone, never to be redefined.

But hard science fiction (“traditional” SF) has been in decline for decades. I am a science fiction scholar, and I don’t even like hard SF. In fact, I don’t like most stories about white straight men doing heroic things and getting the girl. I don’t like it not because the story is itself bad or I hate all men, but because I’ve read this story over and over again; I watch this story on TV; I see it in ads; I read it in realistic fiction; I pay movie tickets to watch it. I’m tired of it. Science fiction is my favorite genre precisely because it offers universes that can go beyond that story.

I want to read stuff that sound like me–a white, cisgender queer woman who was raised in a working-class background, and other stuff that don’t sound like me at all. I am excited to read the new anthology Octavia’s Brood which proclaims proudly that some of its contributors are not even writers. I loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series so much I can’t stop talking about it. I am currently devouring Nalo Hopkinson’s entire oeuvre. There are so many new, challenging, mind-blowing pieces out there–so many it’s hard to keep track–so why go back to the same old, same old?