Louise Rees, Senior Academic Developer in the Recognition Team reflects on recent emergence of feelings of imposterism.
Developing our Identity as an Educator in Higher Education
Developing as an educator in Higher Education and considering one’s identity is a topic covered in the last module of the PG Cert Teaching in Higher Education here at Swansea University. We explore how our teaching philosophy and approaches can be represented through visual metaphors and other creative approaches which I shared at the 2023 SALT Conference. As we start to consider how our identity is being influenced, many discussions note that imposter phenomenon (commonly termed imposter syndrome) is a prominent feature of the feelings of staff new to teaching, whether in academic or professional services contexts. Teaching in higher education is often viewed as a roller coaster. If we’re lucky, we get a ride which has seats with a firm base for our feet rather than a ride where our legs dangle!
Where is the support to address Imposter Syndrome?
There are a range of support mechanisms for postgraduate students in various institutions (e.g. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/students/success-guide/pgr/professional-development/imposter-syndrome/). Does the feeling go away if you progress to become a member of academic staff? And what about those professional services staff that support learning? What guidance do they have?
Imposter syndrome is clearly a feeling that stubbornly refuses to go away for many in academia demonstrated by the 125 articles in our IFind catalogue covering this topic over the past 10 years (search conducted October 16th 2023) and a plethora of blogposts, podcasts, videos, images and websites offering tips (some recent sources at the end of this post). Many studies show its ongoing prevalence among female staff or those self-identifying as BAME (Reynolds, 2021) – hence the provision of leadership development courses such as Aurora and Diversifying leadership from Advance HE.
Why is it that we doubt ourselves?
I continue to doubt my capabilities, and I put it down to not a fear of failure, but one of perfectionism and that surely others will be able to do it better than me? And it’s happened to me very recently when I was asked if I’d facilitate a workshop on creative approaches to support reflection for another institution arising from my presentation at the 2023 SALT Conference.
What could I possibly offer in terms of new approaches or a different slant? The facilitator of the workshop series at the other HEI is themselves very well regarding in active learning approaches and creative reflective techniques! I would be laughed at surely or mutterings of ‘well we learnt nothing new there since X has shared those approaches with us before!’
Before accepting the invitation to deliver the workshop, I thought about it and almost declined. But I decided to contact the facilitator (who I briefly ‘knew’ in other professional contexts) and was open with them about my imposterism! What followed was a supportive conversation about how they hadn’t shared their approaches with the particular staff group who I’d be running the workshop for, providing reassurance in my approaches and a mutual recognition that we all experience these self-doubt feelings during our careers.
The stimulus for this blogpost
An October 2023 podcast with Ijeoma Nwaogu on Overcoming Imposter Anxiety stimulated my reflection about imposterism and why it is that we doubt ourselves. Not only as new teachers, but perhaps as experienced staff faced with something new. Take online teaching, learning and assessment strategies for example. Or responding to Generative AI to ensure assessments are authentic, or preparing for a curriculum review, or indeed facilitating a workshop on creative approaches (me!).
We have become ‘experienced’ and comfortable with methods, yet as the podcast recommends, we should adopt a growth mind-set (see Dweck, 2014) when faced with challenges, recognising that things may not go entirely to plan, (its OK to fail – that’s how we learn – that’s the message we tell our students so why not us?). Knowing when to stop working at something – that sufficient is OK – but the pressure of e.g., critical peer reviews of research and publications or metrics of student evaluations or comparison with others or our own perfectionism makes us fearful that good enough is NOT acceptable.
How our practice responds to imposterism
When we are faced with moving out of our comfort zone to learn and deliver something new, I would argue that we often regress down Kugel’s (1993) stages of development as a ‘professor’ to Stage 0/1 – we focus on becoming subject experts in the discipline and/or the approaches and practice until we are ‘perfect’. We are very self-centred, focusing on our own performance and worried what students think of us. Our immediate reaction is to want to appear to be ‘the expert’ and afraid that students might question our expertise. That’s what happened to me.
However, as Nwaogu indicated in her podcast, its OK to be vulnerable (see Lowrie’s 2019 blogpost), to be authentic with our students (Fidler and Espinosa-Ramos, 2023), to use our individual personality to connect with our learners (Hockings et al, 2009) rather than comparing ourselves with that other lecturer who effortlessly connects with her students exchanging wit as if performing in a Comedy Club.
Important Concepts about Imposter Syndrome
There are a several concepts that Nwaogu discusses in her podcast – but a couple that I wanted to focus on.
- The difference between belonging and mattering, of
- “Reveal to Heal” and
- Of being present not performance.
That whilst it is good as an educator to experience a diversity of viewpoints and expertise, sometimes what gives us confidence is to have those around us who we trust, who share similar values and approaches, whom we can trust. Termed Mattering. Its important to feel we matter.
And when feelings of impostership start to emerge, be brave enough to ‘Reveal to Heal’ – since sharing one’s uncertainties can connect with those who share exactly the same feelings yet remain unspoken. Again, this has been my experience that others are just as scared as you are, just waiting for someone brave enough to voice their fears. To do so, you need to trust in people, hence the Mattering.
And finally, that while we might consider that the only people learning in your class are those actively answering questions and engaging, it’s the quiet person who is thinking and reflecting, and comes out with the insightful question every once in a while that is probably gaining the most. They are exhibiting deep learning. Sometimes called ‘lurkers’ or being vicarious learners learning from observation (Bandura, 1977 – see summary explanation Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory In Psychology (simplypsychology.org)), Susan Cain also notes the power of listening often demonstrated by introverts. While I’m a great advocate for ‘active learning’ techniques, I am still challenged by that notion and find it difficult to recognise that learning is taking place even when someone isn’t ‘actively contributing’. But that’s where I need to be inclusive in my approaches and enable them to contribute in ways that suit them.
How SALT can help give you confidence and thwart the imposterism!
There are couple of opportunities that SALT facilitates that I’d encourage you to engage in and another that I’d encourage you to perhaps take a different view of. Ones which are safe spaces where its OK to share vulnerabilities and possibly lack of knowledge and get support to address any uncertainties you might be feeling.
PG Cert teaching in HE
The first is the PG Cert teaching in HE programme[i]. The programme gently scaffolds participants in their teaching experience from micro-teach observations from peers, through regular peer observation of themselves and by themselves and for those that take it, an Advancing your Practice module that provides a safe space where participant’s slightly longer microteach experimenting using different approaches is recorded to enable playback. These have SO much personal benefit for participants in strengthening their confidence.
Peer Observation as a Positive Collaborative Professional Development Opportunity
The peer observation process followed in the PG Cert programme uses the official forms and process adopted by the University (see the Peer Observation Policy and Template). Because it is approached in a developmental and supported process, the lens of reflection and preparation shifts for all concerned from a perhaps punitive or reluctantly mandatory aspect of scrutinising one’s ‘performance’, to a constructive, collaborative endeavour where both party learns. I’d encourage you to undertake your regular ‘peer observation’ in the same way and not ‘because it has to be done’ but because it will enable you to grow, both as the observer AND the person being observed.
Seminars to share effective practice and teaching tips
The other aspect that SALT facilitates is the range of CPD sessions – Effective Practice and this year’s Teaching Fundamentals programmes (https://staff.swansea.ac.uk/academies/salt/what-we-do/cpd-programmes/). While we would encourage all to be as effective as you can be, don’t be daunted by the practices share by our presenters and facilitators and think ‘I can’t do that’.
Take time to reflect on what they share, embrace the safe space of these sessions, ask questions or follow up with the session facilitators, and consider how you can apply it in your context, discipline and particular teaching approach. It might not work exactly how they’ve shared or indeed work at all for you and your subject. But by adopting a growth mind-set, we can smooth out our roller coaster of emotions of ‘not being good enough’.
[i] The PG Cert programme is usually mandatory for new or inexperienced staff, but it is open for those who wish to do it. It is a two year, part-time course which starts each September.
These views are the view of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching