Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome (n): a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”


Impostor syndrome has always been something I’ve struggled with since starting my study of philosophy. Some points of my academic career have been worse than others, and usually it’s in relation to my circumstances/situation. (For example, next to no feelings of doubting myself around the time I was awarded both departmental awards as a graduating college senior, but terrible impostor syndrome after I got rejected from three grad schools in a row.)

My grad school experience thus far has been one hell of a rollercoaster so I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to keeping my impostor syndrome under control. To that end, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Being honest about it helps. I was always open about my feelings of inadequacy with several (well-chosen) people in my department, and oftentimes, more than just comfort or sympathy, I was met with understanding. It turns out that so many of my colleagues can relate to how I’m feeling and are either going through or have gone through it as well. It’s been so affirming and encouraging to know that these feelings aren’t unique to me. And in general, I think being open about how you’re feeling can, over time, contribute to a culture in which such topics are dealt with better instead of being treated as taboo or something to keep bottled up.
  • The more comfortable I become in an environment, the better sense of belonging I have, and the less I feel like I don’t deserve to be there. So in general, coping with impostor syndrome may just take some time.
  • It’s good to remind myself that I’m my own biggest critic and that my assessment of my own performance is necessarily biased, and that people with way more experience than me have judged my work adequate (or better than adequate).
  • On a similar note, it’s also good to remind myself that it’s okay to suck sometimes. If I write a shitty term paper or say something stupid during a seminar, that’s fine. We all have our moments. It doesn’t mean that – on the whole – I am not deserving of my place in academia/in my department.

Student Evals Are In

I have had such an indescribably shitty past few days but today I was finally able to access student evals from my very first semester of teaching and right now my heart is so happy! I didn’t expect to love teaching so much, but it has truly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in grad school so far. To know that my students think of me as a helpful, enthusiastic, and capable instructor means so much.

Because of the aforementioned shitty past few days, I need a bit of positivity in my life. So here is a collection of a few of my favorite comments students left:

“Ms.Balance is absolutely the best TA I’ve ever had. Not only does she go above and beyond for her students by making little reading guide handouts to clearly outline a philosopher’s ideas in order to make sure we understand the topic, but she readily makes herself easy to contact out of class for any help at any moment. She really did more than she had to do as a TA […]. She really wants her students to succeed and it really shows in her work and the effort she puts into the class.”

“Brielle is a very passionate instructor in the Philosophy department. She made this very clear throughout this semester to everyone around her. I also believe that she truly cares about all of her students. […] I believe she provided many different useful tools and mentoring over the semester that really is an asset to UNC’s Introduction to Ethics course and students in the class.”

“Cool hair style :)”

“Gabrielle Balance’s help was the only reason why I passed the class. Her mentoring and individual care was above and beyond anything asked of for a TA. She really cares for her students and her recitation greatly approves the understanding of all of her students.”

“BRIELLE IS AMAZING! This recitation saved me in this class. She is one of the best teachers I have these semester.”

“Gabrielle did a very good job in her TA position. She had a great understanding of the ideas at play, she also did an excellent job of conveying those ideas to her students. She went above and beyond what the other TA’s for this course did. She did an amazing job in making sure her students had a good handle on the ideas in class with her in class discussions. I would not have done nearly as well in this course without her as my TA.”

“Gabrielle Balance was an amazing TA. I would not have understood the course without her. She very clearly explains hard topics and it is evident she cares about her students.”

“One of my favorite TAs I have had so far. She broke down the lectures very well to help us clearly understand it. She asked for our feedback a lot, and made sure she answered any questions that the class had. She is willing to work with you outside of class and held a couple of review sessions outside of class to prepare for finals or papers. Not only is she a good TA, she is also a great person who makes sure you feel included and supported which helps me feel more comfortable in class.”

“I loved this course, Ms Balance was an awesome TA that even people from other sections would try to attend her office hours. She was extremely helpful and made the material engaging”

I know this blog post is something I’ll come back to again and again whenever school gets tough to remind me why I do this and motivate me to keep going. ❤

How I Organize My Planner

So, first things first: I use a Happy Planner in the mini size (4.5″ x 7″) with the vertical week-per-2-pages spread.

Here is what a typical weekly spread looks like for me. This is the current week and not yet completely filled out:

Inkededit 2_LI

  • I pencil in the times (7 am-9 pm) and use the Happy Planner vertical layout as an hourly scheduler
  • I note the week of the current semester in the top left corner
  • In blue ink I write events and in black ink I write smaller notes (event info, to-dos, etc.)
    • One thing I really like is writing in tasks that I complete, especially course assignments and blog posts, to have an idea of what and when I get things done.
      • Filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
  • I use the following color-coding system (which may be slightly off in the above photo due to the filter I used):
    • Green: courses I am in (student or TA)
    • Light blue: department events (invited talks, meetings, etc.)
    • Red: non-departmental appointments
    • Purple: social events
    • Light pink: workouts
      • Usually filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
    • Yellow: highlighting important black ink notes (not pictured) and crossing off to-do checkboxes
  • At the top I write very important events or reminders

I also have a separator tab in the back for lined paper. I use the lined paper for my to-do lists, as the main body of the agenda doesn’t have room for me to write all of my to-dos:

edited

  • One page (left) lists my course assignments for the week
  • The other page (right) lists my non-coursework-related to-dos, which I try to do as much as possible over the weekend

I’ve been using this planning system since the beginning of the school year and it’s been working really well for me so far. My planner holds so much information about my schedule, to-dos, and workouts, and yet it remains visually appealing, organized, and compact. Thought I would share it 🙂

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

#Post-GradProblems: A loss of identity and purpose

It’s really pretty astounding how much of a young person’s identity and purpose is wrapped up in being a student. You begin going to school at the young age of 4 or 5, right around the time you start forming long-term memories, and (if you go to college) it isn’t until you’re well into early adulthood that you’re dismissed from the education system. The structure of your life – what you do and even who you are, as far back as you can remember, has been defined by school.

And then you graduate and suddenly it’s not.

This transition was really jarring for me, as I imagine it was for most of my peers. Suddenly I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t have my class schedule to keep me in check, so I slept at odd hours. The friends I used to spend everyday with had moved away from me, so my social life became non-existent. Along with losing my status as a university student, I lost all the perks that came along with it: membership to the school’s gym, access to library resources, a valid student ID to let me into places on campus. I didn’t know how to spend my time. I missed college. I was a mess.

But like most things, eventually you get used to it. I forced myself into a healthy and sustainable routine again and gave myself a chance to explore what I could do with this newfound free time. (I even adopted a dog!) From what I gather from my old college peers, they’ve settled down and they’re doing okay too.

As far as I’ve seen, this experience, although common, isn’t something that’s recognized in such explicit terms. I think students could really benefit from some counseling or resources (or even just a fucking heads up??) given to them shortly before graduating.

1 Down, 5 To Go.

Yesterday I submitted my final term paper for the semester, which means my first year of grad school has officially come to a close.

I’m not really quite sure what to say. I wish I could say that I’ve become right at home in my new department, dove headfirst into all my classes, impressed all my professors with insightful comments during class, and produced work I was proud of. But in all honestly, none of that is true. When I look back on this year, what stands out the most is all the bad stuff.

I’ve struggled to find people in my department who I can form close relationships with. There are a handful of people I’m comfortable hanging out with, asking advice from, and even talking about my personal problems with, but they don’t feel like close, natural friendships. I still feel like I can’t completely drop the “friendly and professional” act.

As far as classes go, there were three that I genuinely enjoyed. I couldn’t get into any of the rest. I skipped the readings, often didn’t contribute to discussions, and really had to rack my brain just to find something to write about when term paper season came around. There were a few moments where I was proud of the work I turned in, but more often than not it was me struggling to meet the length requirements and breathing a sigh of relief when it was over with.

I’ve been told the first year of grad school is one of the hardest, and the reason they push us so hard is because it forces our skills to develop significantly in a short period of time, but to be honest I just…don’t really feel like I’ve improved all that much. Oftentimes I just feel way out of my league and like I still need to prove (both to myself and to my colleagues) that I deserve my spot in this program.

I know some part of this can be chalked up to the stress involved with moving clear across the country to a brand new place and leaving all my friends and family behind, and some more is just impostor syndrome, but a very real chunk of it is just…me genuinely not doing so great.

Don’t get me wrong – my first year didn’t go terribly. I passed all my classes, got involved in outreach and projects I’m passionate about, and met some amazing people. But I know I can do better. I refuse to believe that grad school is always going to feel this shitty.