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Fake it until you make it: academia’s dirty secret

I often say, despite reading all the books, having had a fairly rigorous secondary education, and attending a college that makes its alumnae say that grad school was easier (I certainly found this to be true!), I didn’t really understand how scholarly communications & academic production worked until halfway through library school.  WTF does “scholarly communications” even mean, a bunch of you are now probably asking.  That’s fancy-speak for journal articles and such, the things that scholars write about what they’ve figured out, so that other people may read it & thus also learn those things.

If you’ve been to college, your first semester’s classes probably included trips to the library & sessions with librarians, supposedly to teach you how to access the library’s resources.  It probably didn’t work.  I’ve been there, I’ve taken those trips, sat in the library classrooms, and it didn’t work.  When I started college, I didn’t know that the Library of Congress cataloging system was even a thing; for all the other resources my high school had, the library was a neglected shame, and it used Dewey anyway (as did the local public library).  It took me a while to figure out that LoC’s call numbers are numerical, rather than decimal-based (theres a word for this, but I can’t think of it right now, halp?) as in Dewey. Before I realized the difference, every book I looked for was a shelf or three away from where I thought it would be.  Let’s not even talk about the databases or archival collections.

I’m not really sure where to lay the blame for all this.  Perhaps our academic librarians aren’t doing a very good job explaining things, or aren’t able to ascertain what it is that students need from them.  Perhaps the average high school, especially in our era of standardized testing, and therefore especially at public schools, has little relation to the kinds of academic work expected from undergraduates.  Perhaps the couple hours of instruction that most students get from their librarians is not enough to familiarize them with the vast resources the library holds.  Probably it’s all of these things, which puts us all in sticky situations with no easy solutions.

And that’s for those of us whose lives take the path of traditional academics.  In the course of my free-range librarianing, the comrades I answer reference questions for are often working outside the academy, and therefore have not had that introduction, rudimentary & ineffective as it may be, to the academy’s systems.  Let me be clear that these folks are producing work that is of equal quality to those working inside the academy, they just do so working from a different position.  And that is an approach I cheer whole-heartedly.  Just as we say all power to and from all people, I say all knowledge to and from all people.  As much as some corners of the academy would like, the academy does not have a monopoly of knowledge production.

Fast forward from my confused wanderings in the college library to a couple years ago, when, after librarianing in the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street, I started on the academic conference circuit.

My day job is not at an academic library.  I’m one of those non-traditional librarians — I work in an art gallery, doing a lot of organization, proofreading, carrying heavy things, database management, piles of what could by lumped under digital archival work or art librarianship, and a million other things because I work in a weird place.  I don’t do things that most librarians do at work.  And thought I do a lot of research, I am not particularly an academic.  Yet I find myself interfacing with academic communities a lot, particularly through writing and conferences.

Among my political comrades I’m not the only one doing that.  Somehow, an awful lot of us are doing what is basically academic production and scholarly communications without being part of the academy or having easy access to its resources.   Sometimes this means a friend in another state will ask me to photocopy something at NYPL, because he doesn’t have access to the libraries near him that hold it.  Sometimes it means I use a sibling’s or friend’s login to access databases that their university library subscribes to.  It means pirated digital copies of books, running from work to get to NYPL’s reading room before they close for the day, or wondering if anyone will take my work seriously without an institutional affiliation.

To the outside world, academics seem to gracefully go about their learned business.  Somehow, academics pour in documents and books and data and all manner of who-knows-what, and some time later out come books and papers and presentations and charts, and all those things seem to have a format and follow some rules and look so tidy.  We all wear fancy hats and walk in straight lines.  If our tweeds are a little rumpled, it’s only because the mind has more important things to think about.  And no one ever has to ask how to write a speaker bio or an abstract, or who the hell this Turabian lady thinks she is and what does MLA or APA even stand for, and everyone can always find things in the online catalog, and every deadline is met with time to spare.

Especially as the demographics of higher education students have changed in the last few decades, encompassing more women, working class and poor people, and people of color (especially as a college degree has been made more necessary for getting a job that one can actually support oneself with), and as the full-time tenured professor is becoming an endangered species (and how these are all features of a shitty neoliberal system, but that’s a story for another time), we see thing like “imposter syndrome.”  For those unfamiliar with it, it’s the feeling that plagues many students, post-docs & even young professors, and is especially noted in women, that they are somehow, despite all the work they put in, faking it.  And that it’s just a matter of time until someone notices they don’t actually have what it takes to be in the positions they are in, that they don’t know what they are doing, aren’t actually that smart, and so on.  They feel like they are merely passing as academics, rather than actually being academics.

Of course, this is not due to any actual failings on the part of the scholars who feel like this.  It is a misalignment between the received idea of who an academic is (white, male, comfortably upper-middle class at least, unflappably calm & sure), and who our actual academics are.  And these are the folks who are doing academic production from within the academy!  How much more of an imposter do those working outside it think themselves?

Now we come to my point.

No one in academia actually knows what they are doing.


It’s all a myth.  As far as I can tell, everyone is faking it.  Ok, maybe one person somewhere lives up to the stereotype of the academic, but that’s only one person somewhere, whom I’ve never met.  And they are probably an insufferable jerk.

I figured this out a couple years ago, as I was writing a paper for the How Class Works conference at Stony Brook.  There I was, finishing up my paper on the train ride out to the conference, to present on a topic (gender) that, despite knowing front and back, in and out, I don’t have any degrees in.  Yet I’d been invited to a conference, and people were going to listen to things I had to say.  Did I mention that I was still working on the paper the day I was presenting it?  Imposter!

But, it turns out that’s completely normal!  Pretty much everyone is still working on their papers on the way to their conferences!  Did you know that?  I bet you didn’t know that!  High school and college students are so hammered by their teachers about deadlines — shamed, even! — and those very same teachers are incredibly lax about meeting deadlines themselves.  High school students are told that hard deadlines are meant to train them for the deadlines they’ll face in college, and college students are told it’s for ones they’ll face in grad school or professional life, and grad students…  You see my point.  Except, it doesn’t work that way.  The farther you get up the ladder, the less deadlines matter, and the more you are left to your own devices, or will be able to convince the people you are submitting work to that a few more days makes no difference.  Shortly after I spent my train ride finishing that paper, I read a listicle about academics, and, sure enough, one point was “finishing your paper on the way to the conference.”

And have you seen Lol My Thesis?  It’s funny because it’s not far from the truth.  Nor are you the only one who’s bibliography is based on things that are available in digital format because you didn’t have time to go to the library.  Then you, like everyone else, had to look up the format for that bibliography, because no one can ever remember it.  And, unless you are an archivist, no one knows how to use the finding aids (not that they came to the archives anyway[see previous point]).

And yet we are all led to believe that everyone around us is a responsible adult, in ways that we aren’t.  In reality, every other academic feels just as scattered as we do.  That doesn’t mean that we aren’t smart or hard working, or that we aren’t ultimately producing quality work.  What it does mean is that academic work is not tidy.  Especially in our current situation, where academia increasingly does not support its workers (for fuck’s sake, at many schools adjuncts don’t even have offices!), we’re all a hot mess.  Which makes it ok for you, yes, you, dear reader, to be a hot mess as you do your research and write your papers.  It’s ok to be finishing up your presentation right before you give it.  It’s ok to have not read that book that could only be gotten via interlibrary loan from across the country.  It’s ok, that’s normal.

So let’s stop pretending.  Stop projecting this tidy image of academics having their shit together.  We’re hurting ourselves with it.  If this is what reality is like, let’s start admitting it.  Tell each other, and tell students.  My comrades independently working outside the academy, you may want to make yourselves signs for your bathroom mirrors or something, so that next time you’re feeling like an imposter you’ll be reminded.  We’re all faking it.


About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable mid-career librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

8 comments on “Fake it until you make it: academia’s dirty secret

  1. Lunar Euphoria
    January 6, 2014

    “Hot mess.” Yep. That about sums it all up.

    Another great post.

  2. David
    January 6, 2014

    I admit it. I’m faking it … I think. Or I feel like I am … or whatever. My departmental colleagues in this researchy university are all convinced that that other colleague has it down, but none of them believe they do. Yeah, you got it right.

  3. Jeff
    January 6, 2014

    Somewhat Baudrillard.

  4. kaymetviner
    January 6, 2014

    As someone who is no longer in school but still wants to participate in the academic realm, I fully identify with imposter syndrome. I know I am no less intelligent or qualified to read and write now than when my occupation was “student”; in fact, I would hope to be more so. Yet that image of the “real academic”, the one who can access research databases with his or her own credentials, instills in me a fear of not belonging or having anything to contribute.

    Thank you for adding a more human side to the academic stereotype and advocating for the inclusion of the rest of us non-academic academic types!

  5. oonaghfin
    January 6, 2014

    this is so true. thank you.

  6. Pingback: Happy Birthday! We’ve been sinking for one year (and counting)! | LibrarianShipwreck

  7. Brian Hasbrouck
    January 29, 2015

    Do you think if we made information literacy more interesting and the people conducting the sessions were equipped with presentation skills that it would improve?

    • oneofthelibrarians
      January 30, 2015

      I think that there’s a few things that could be done. First, it takes more than a single hour long session, which is often what is allotted for it. And then, if students are hearing about library resources as first semester students, it probably makes little sense to them. Maybe required courses, in the way that many schools have required first year courses on other things? Or integrating it better into the existing first-year courses? They are taking in all this information, but they don’t yet know what it’s for or how to apply it. Repeating the lesson later on would help. And then, yes, if the librarians were better equipped to be teaching it, that would help, too. Perhaps library school should have required courses on how to teach, so that all librarians go into their careers with that skillset.

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This entry was posted on January 6, 2014 by in Academia, Culture, Education, Higher Education, Students, Teachers, Teaching.

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