Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: June 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

Monday Morning Brainstorms

Hello Readers! Happy Monday!
     Within a few minutes of waking up this morning, I happened to find myself reading newest post in the blog "Brainstorm" in The Chronicle, and it got my wheels turning, so I thought I'd open up my own post and start writing. I had to stop in the middle of writing, and finish it up and post it this afternoon, but I kind of liked the distinctive style the morning writing had yielded -- so here it is!
      Writing when I first wake up is always an adventure in crossing over from the dreamy, abstract, fluid, intuitively profound recesses of my brain into the more concrete, sensory edges of my brain that meet the outside world with wary calculation and skepticism. So when, upon waking, I reached for my computer and began skimming through Facebook posts and mass emails that had transpired overnight, I somehow, by no conscious intention nor deliberation, ended up opening The Chronicle and being drawn to click on a link to a post entitled "A 'Tempest'-uous Reprieve for Western Civ." Perhaps the title, combined with the blog title "Brainstorm," appealed to my still-tempesting dreamy thought-trains, or perhaps it was a random series of clicks that brought me to it, but regardless, I was drawn into David Barash's post, and, as my mind awoke, I found myself beginning to process thoughts, and have the beginnings of something to say.
     Although the tongue-in-cheek sentences about "the decline and imminent fall of Western Civilization" and Thomas Jefferson's quotation “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” evoked some apocalyptic images in my sleepy mind, the  phrase in Barash's post that struck me out of dreamland and into reality was the phrase "coarsening of our public discourse."  The word "coarsening" had the effect of someone grating the interior of my mind, as if I was crossing from a silken landscape into a sandpaper world. The phrase "public discourse" jolted me from the world of fairydusted sunlight streaming into my window into the world of academia, as if a disembodied hand had thrust my academic hat upon my head before I could stave it off. It was too late -- I was yanked into the discussion.
     As I made my coffee, I thought about this phrase -- "the coarsening of public discourse." Suddenly even the coffee grinds I was dumping into my Mr. Coffee pot seemed to scream the word "coarse" at me, as if each object my senses would encounter this morning would metonymically reverberate with the rough scratchiness of the world around me. What did the connotations of the word "coarseness" actually register about our Western world? Why did the author's phrase strike me in such a sharp way this morning? As we have gotten more technically savvy and slick and sophisticated as a culture, have we become roughened in another way -- less refined and propituous? Have we lost the ability to be gracious? Has our taste for the finer, subtle things been replaced with a gluttony for bigger, more, faster, flashier? I thought about my lazy reach for my Macbook as I woke up and my half-asleep stroll through Facebook and email subscriptions and wondered if the instant access to a virtual version of the social network was contributing to what Barash is sensing as an imminent vulgarizing of our cultural infrastructures.
     As I sipped my coffee and sank back onto the plush brown couch where I do most of my writing, I began to think about what aspects of society have become coarsened. Overall, I agree with the author that there are indeed indelicacies about Western civilization’s trends in communication: I see crudeness in many elements of our society -- in our speaking, in our parenting and educating of our children, in our political campaigning and rhetoric, in our writing of movie screenplays and songs – in our relationships, in our self-awareness, in our definitions of success and self-worth. But as I drank my coffee, and my head began to clear away the dreamy cobwebs from the night's sleep, I started to fervently believe that maybe nostalgia was at work in Brainstorm's post -- were we really so much more refined and full of elegance and superior aesthetic taste in decades past, or was that image simply a romanticized, nostalgic version of the past that we like to conjure as a way to disengage ourselves from the crudity we feel and see around us?
      At the end of the day, the author finds optimism in a performance by Christopher Plummer in the recent  film adaptation of "The Tempest," which instilled hope in the author that there still exists some kind of high-brow artistic possibility in the Western world. I like that essay ends with optimism, but I still question the fundamental premise that popular culture is essentially a cess-pool save for a few diamonds in the rough.
      Another day of teaching at my day-job and writing for the dissertation lay ahead. I know my thoughts today will be clouded by these diametric thoughts of coarseness and refinement  -- but I hope that my brain can whip up a perfect storm so that I can somehow transcend the stereotypical conceptions of this binary. That is my thought of the day! I hope it helps stir up a brainstorm in you as you begin your week!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"You're a Grand Old Grad"

Happy Flag Day!

When I was little, my siblings and I used to write parodies to the tunes of common holiday songs. Here's a ditty I wrote about grad students, inspired by "You're a Grand Old Flag," apropos for today.  I'm hoping this goes viral.

"You're a Grand Old Grad"

You're a grand old grad, you're a hard working grad,
and forever in peace may you grade.
You're the servant of, the school you love,
You teach and research, and get paid!

Every term goes by, and you try not to cry,
Remembering the struggles you had!
Should years pass by, til it all ends,
Keep your eye on that grand old grad!

Have a great Flag Day everyone, and Happy Birthday to the Army!
Til next time, Liza

Monday, June 11, 2012

Blogs for Grads!

Hi Readers!
Thanks for tuning into last week's post -- it had the most first-day hits ever! This week, I wanted to share a list I found about other graduate-school related blogs -- it's called the "Top 50 Blogs Every Graduate Student Should Read," and I found it by googling "graduate school blogs." I was looking for other blogs like Grad.Life, to see what other graduate students are writing and thinking about. I hit the jackpot when I found this list!
Some of the "blogs" listed aren't really blogs -- more like websites that provide information or links to resources. But the blogs that are on the list are some I have never heard of before, but that I am glad I found. The list is from January of 2011, but most of these blogs are still in action and have current posts that are full of information, anecdotes, perspectives, and ideas about graduate school life. Even the ones that aren't super current have great archives to browse through.
The first one on the list, "Adventures in Gradland," actually has since changed it's name to "Adventures in (Post) Gradland" -- author defended in May! There is hope!! :)
There's one called "Dissertation Diva" that has some clever and funny advice-column-esque Q & A posts,  plus lots of advice for writing the dissertation.
I also got sucked into the archives of "To Do: Dissertation," -- I laughed because on my "To Do" lists that I scribble down onto the margins of my planner each day always start with: To Do: Diss, which is obviously so ridiculous to write down on my To Do list -- as if I could forget that this monster that is holding up my life is hanging over my head!!!!
The list is broken up into 5 sections: general life support, specific graduate program blogs, study tool resources, writing resources, and work and money. In the last section, I enjoyed browsing through "Broke Grad" -- it reads like a magazine geared towards helping graduate students become financially savvy in the real world.
Well, I hope this list is helpful in your time of need and does not increase the procrastination factor!
Til next time---

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Imposter Syndrome: The Masks of Success

    A old friend of mine from college (and now a Grad.Life reader!) sent me a link to an article on a very interesting issue that haunts many graduate students: it’s called the Imposter Phenomenon.  As soon as I saw the headline to the article, I immediately recalled discussing this syndrome in my dissertation group, years ago. Our group’s advisor was listening to us collectively vent our fears about not being good enough – but as we sat and talked and sipped wine and shared our feelings of inadequacy and began to come to terms with some of our feelings, we realized that these emotions were much more complicated than some kind of low self-esteem or low self-worth (which are complicated enough on their own, believe me). The feeling we were converging on was more a fear of being “found out” – found out by those among us and above us that we had faked our way to the top of our high school and college classes, faked our way into graduate school, and faked our way through comps, and faked our way through the proposal, and faked our way into this group. It was a fear that we’d basically keep on faking it until we make it, blindly grasping at luck and opportunity and just barely scraping by, somehow tricking people, until someone finally catches us in our act of academic deception. I remember looking around with a sick feeling in my stomach, as if I was finally admitting something that had been hiding like a skeleton in my educational closet -- that the jig was up. I was ready to surrender, with hands in the air, the weight of deception and guilt off my shoulders. 
     And then our advisor intervened and calmly said, “There is actually a name for what you are feeling. It’s called The Imposter Syndrome.” He explained that it was an extremely common feeling among graduate students and professionals.
    As my advisor was explaining this syndrome to us, I felt a rush of relief flood into my heart, as the blood rushed into my face – other people outside of this room feel this way too? You mean there’s an actual pathological component to this feeling? You mean, other people have this, and feel this, and know about this? As he continued to field our questions, I looked around, my mind blown. Knowing that this feeling had a name, and had been studied by real psychologists, (although it is not officially recognized in the DSMMD as a psychological disorder), somehow did make me feel slightly better. Not less of a fraud, but perhaps a little bit more aware that my fraudulent feeling might exist in my head, rather than in reality.
    So, what is the imposter phenomenon, exactly? The imposter phenomenon, a.k.a imposter syndrome, a.k.a fraud syndrome, is a condition in which a professional unfoundedly feels as if he or she has fraudulently joined the ranks of his or her own profession, or in which a student irrationally feels as if he or she doesn’t belong among his or her peers. If you suffer from this syndrome, you feel undeserving of your success and achievements. You feel like you have slipped past the barriers, snuck in under the radar. To me, I understand it as a type of paranoia. Constantly, you feel like you will be “found out” or “discovered” for the fraud that you are. It is also the feeling of not belonging. It is dark, and strange, and very real inside the heads of many graduate students. 
    The psychologists who coined the term and first studied the syndrome emphasize the internality of this disordered thinking. Sufferers of this syndrome lack an internal sense of success – they are just unable to internalize their own success and their own merit. In other words, they feel they do not deserve their status, degrees, accolades, and that they have somehow deceived the world around them in order to attain what they’ve attained.
    In trying to tease out what might cause this emotion or pattern of thinking to arise, I tried to draw some analogies and connections to other situations and experiences. At first, I began thinking of developmental psychology, noticing that in some articles I pulled up on the topic, imposter syndrome seems to arise from succumbing to past images of oneself. A person may not be able to get around an image of herself that concretized long ago, which has nothing to do with her current status or state of being. Then, thinking about perception of oneself, I realized that imposter syndrome has some parallel characteristics to another mental disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder – in which one perceives his or her body in a negative way and makes observations that are not supported by reality. (For example, a woman sincerely believes she is “huge” when she is factually 100 pounds and 5 feet tall.)
    It’s also similar to when you first fall in love with someone, and that person falls in love with you, too, and suddenly you begin to wonder, “Why on earth does this person love me?” And you wait for them to discover your real, hidden self, and, upon the discovery, for them to get up and walk away.
     Whoah! Didn’t mean to take such a dark turn there! But it is kind of a dark issue, when you really think about it. Imposter syndrome! It sounds like the stuff of a great Gothic slash dark comedic novel set in the world of academia, exploring the psychological limits of the human being in the post-post-modern world.
     The question left for me is: what is it about graduate school specifically that creates the conditions for this syndrome to arise? Is it due to some kind of barriers put up between the students and the mentors? Is it just human nature when it comes to intellectual activities? What causes this failure to internalize one’s own success and merit? Is it indicative of low-self-esteem? Or is it something systemic in our educational and professional structure that causes someone to feel like a fraud amongst peers? Is it a combination of one’s nature and one’s environment? Who is vulnerable? More interestingly, who is not vulnerable to this syndrome?

     Personally, I deal with this feeling often, especially after reading a great journal article, or a new book in my field – it comes into my head that my ideas are inferior, and that I don’t belong in this league, that I am out of my depth – and I wonder one day, they will tell me that I need to leave – that it just hasn’t been good enough. 
    The strange thing is that I don’t feel this way in ALL areas of my life. Aside from being a grad student, I am also a singer, and I used to act in plays and musicals, and I can’t remember ever once feeling as if I faked my way through an audition, faked my way through a song, or faked my way into the cast of a musical.  I don’t remember thinking, "I’m not as talented as these people, how did I get here, I’m going to be found out…. " I just sang, and left it all out there, and accepted the outcome, good or bad. For some reason, I could always internalize my sense of achievement much more easily as a singer than as a literature student. 
   The difference is, I guess, that in academia, we rise up the ranks based on a system that we know deep in our hearts to be politicized and arbitrary, with inflated grades that pretend to be objective but are ultimately subjective. A Phd is kind of like this objective body of evidence I can point to to say, look, I’m smart and I achieved something significant in my field. But, if in my heart and brain, I know that this evidence is only an illusion of objectivity, perhaps that is why I am constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Maybe the existence of Imposter Syndrome exposes the phantasmagoric underpinnings of the academy in the first place. If ultimately there is no way to prove yourself worthy anyway, it makes sense that you would be constantly worried about being caught defenseless.
    With art, on the other hand, nothing pretends to be objective. Everything is subjective – so there is no worry about having to one day prove yourself worthy with some objective measure. You just are what you are. I sing the way I sing. I write the songs that come to me. There is no layer of wondering whether or not I have “tricked” people into thinking I can sing – because it is all subjective anyway. It is already understood by my brain and my heart that people may or may not think I’m a good singer. When my band plays at a local bar, I don’t worry about whether or not will think I am a fraud or not -- which is not to say that I don't worry at all; I worry about something more simple: whether I will be good or not.  Any worry I have about being on stage is not about any kind of deception. In fact, it's the opposite -- because when I'm out on stage, I'm not hiding behind sentences, and language, and structure, and grammar, and jargon -- I'm not hiding anything. It's me out there, raw and vulnerable -- singing my heart out. Take it or leave it. 

    Of course, I’m only an amateur singer. So maybe that’s the real difference? Perhaps for professional artists and performers, Imposter Syndrome exists as well? There are certain professional heights you may achieve – winning a Grammy or a Tony or perhaps getting into a Song Writer’s union – do you think professionals who achieve these things feel like frauds? Do they wonder if some day they will be found out as fakers? Somehow, it doesn’t seem to fit with the pattern. But maybe I am wrong.
   What experiences have you had with this feeling? Have you experienced it? Or have you been baffled by dealing with others who clearly are amazing but can’t seem to acknowledge their own competency? Share your thoughts! There is so much more to be addressed concerning this topic and others like it – let’s start the conversation!!! And thanks to Brandon C. who tossed this topic my way – if you want to see any topics covered here, let me know!