by Alex Powell

Recently I’ve started teaching as part of my PhD, and through doing so I‘ve been learning a few things myself. The most striking thing I have noticed is how skewed and extreme expectations are for people in various academic roles. Why do we assume that a lecturer in any given subject should know everything there is to know about that subject off the top of their head?

Predictably, becoming a recipient of these altered role expectations lead me into a period of imposter syndrome, defined aptly by a Guardian column of 2013 as ‘the feeling that you’re a fraud, and any day now you’ll be exposed’. Fortunately, this passed as experience taught me how incorrect my assumptions about myself were.

One of the first things I felt in the run up to my first term of teaching was that I had massively underprepared. I had done all the reading, set out coherent lesson plans, made a presentation (including some frankly fabulous videos), and yet I did not feel in any way ready. I felt that I was seconds away from being exposed as either incompetent or incapable, right up until the moment I stepped into the classroom. However, within minutes of standing up in front of the class, I realised something: not only do I know the subject matter, I know it just as well as anyone who ever taught me. In defiance of our often unrealistic and unfair expectations, no teacher is perfectly knowledgeable.

We need to begin to be more accepting of the fact that people do not know everything

In the changing higher education environment, very few people can continue to expect to teach only in their main area of research and expertise. Almost no-one in the industry knows all there is to know about the subjects they teach. But that’s okay. We need to begin to be more accepting of the fact that people do not know everything.

When I was an undergraduate student, I used to think that my lecturers were these magical people who could recall any point of law at will. Of course, this wasn’t the case; they were simply well-prepared. But I think it is important that we are honest and clear about this at all levels of academia. If we want to improve the confidence of students and the mental health of junior lecturers, we must acknowledge that we all suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time. And, moreover, that all teachers do come across student queries they cannot answer off the top of their heads.

Academia has become obsessed with image and reputation in recent years. If more of us begin to counter this unrealistic vision by recognising our own limitations, maybe we can start to take higher education back to its roots. By focusing on ourselves, we can nudge the sector to focus on knowledge creation and dissemination over obsessing on more students, more money, and more media attention. By recognising our abilities more accurately, we can create a more reassuring environment, hopefully helping academic staff and students struggling with imposter syndrome to realise that many others feel exactly as they do.

I love the higher education sector, I really don’t know what else I would choose to do with my life without it. However, sometimes we all feel like an imposter, like we don’t belong in academia or deserve to be there. The best way to tackle that is to admit it, together. So this is a call for academic staff, star students, and anyone who might seem to have all the answers. Remind others that you are still human. It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ every now and then. In fact, many students feel far more comfortable learning from someone who does, myself included. Let newer colleagues know that when you started out you felt fraudulent in exactly the same way. And let them know that, some days, you still do.

Featured image via Pixabay

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