Blogs > Cliopatria > First day of school, and the "suspicion of one's own fraudulence"

Aug 30, 2004 3:27 pm

First day of school, and the "suspicion of one's own fraudulence"

It's the first day of school here at Pasadena City College. Though my first class doesn't meet until 10:25, I got up just after five this morning, having had a restless night. A quick pre-dawn run settled my nerves temporarily, as did playtime with Matty the chinchilla. But here it is, not yet 9:00AM, and for the umpteenth year in a row, I have butterflies in my stomach about the first day of school.

I'll be the first to admit, if academia is not the"real world", then I don't know what the"real world" is. I began my educational career about 1970 at Santa Barbara's Humpty-Dumpty Nursery School, and for the past 34 years, each autumn has seen me go off to school with my nerves a-flutter. (Yes, I went straight from high school to college to grad school to teaching full-time -- that makes me both fortunate and relatively unusual among my colleagues).

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It's not stagefright -- public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It's not new material, at least not this year -- all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It's not fear that my students won't like me -- though I do struggle with vanity, it's not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can't believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me"We're sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else." Though I can assure my readers (all 12 of you) that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I"got away with something" when I was hired for this job.

I've talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for almost forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling"the suspicion of one's own fraudulence". That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say"Really? That's how I feel too!" (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn't some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt and the drive to prove one's self. Actually, that's silly -- I don't wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

But I am happy to say that at this stage of my career,"suspicions of my own fraudulence" are less intense than they were a decade or so ago. The nervous jitters this morning are, in fact, quite pleasant. They're more like the nerves one gets before a first date, or before taking an exciting trip to an exotic country. Every class I've ever taught is different, as the chemistry created by a certain mix of unique people can never be precisely duplicated. One never knows what's coming, and thus the anticipation is nothing short of delicious.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/31/2004

William --
And the key is knowing that fine line is out there. Of course in lots of ways politics, my views, come out in my classes. At essence, I can be described as a political historian, so I'll always run that risk. But there is a level of coercion about those views that I hope none, or at least few, of my students have ever left my class feeling. And if some have left feeling that way, I would feel bad about it, at least assuming that the feelings were not legitimate. (I do not lose sleep over "too much blacks and women," in my evals, for example.

Hugo Schwyzer - 8/31/2004

Well, if the shoe fits, watch out for the other one that's about to drop.

(That's the level I've sunk to this morning)

William R. Clay - 8/31/2004

Derek, this is getting to be almost a love fest of concurrence! I find myself strongly supporting your opinion of keeping ideology out of the classroom as much as possible. There is little doubt we all induce some of our feelings into what we instruct, but there is little excuse, as you state, for professors to, “…go in and try to grind their axes…”. By far the most disagreeable course I took in undergraduate days was from one of the most opinionated SOB’s in the department. There were no other valid viewpoints other than his. The good doctor was hired to instruct not preach, but preach he did. I keep this in mind as much as possible as I head toward a blackboard. That does not mean I cannot open closed minds or present opposing outlooks to students. There is a fine line and it needs to be adhered to.

Sharon Howard - 8/31/2004

We kind of know it really, but it's always good to be reminded that we (nearly) all feel like this. And that in a way it's a damned good thing. Because the alternative seems to be complacency and mediocrity. (But does worrying in reality make you less mediocre? See, there I go again...)

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/31/2004

So I am a fraud and a thief now, am I!

Julie A Hofmann - 8/31/2004

Jeff Russell at UCSB once told me that the imposter complex was pretty much an inherent part of the lives of many academics. It made me feel better -- especially when I noticed that a lot of people who *don't* suffer from it are the people who seem not to feel the need to question whether they are doing their best.

Hugo Schwyzer - 8/30/2004

Hah, Derek, you took my line! ;-)

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/30/2004

Then again, at least with returning students, you've fooled them once . . .

Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2004

My opening day jitters come more, I think, from the 'will they like me' than from the 'I don't belong in front of them' arena. Pretty early in my graduate career I realized that the knowledge gap between me as an historian and my students was pretty big, and I have something to offer.

At least most of them.... I do still get nervous when I have repeat students, who've seen my schtick before, heard my meditations on things historical and cultural, particularly History majors......

Derek Charles Catsam - 8/30/2004

Hugo's nice entry and the concomitant comments are precisely why I think we should tread lightly with ideology in the classroom. If honest but from what I can tell from my perch respected and super-competent folks like Hugo, Manan, Oscar, and William can harbor these feelings about teaching our subject matter, how much hubris does it take for professors to move relatively outside of those areas to pontificating about ideology or current events in the guise of open inquiry in the classroom? As anyone can tell from Rebunk, I do not lack for an opinion on matters related to the present and the past. And my students are perfectly capable of finding my blog. But it is one thing for them to know that out there, somewhere, I have opinions that I state and fight about, and quite another for me to walk into the classroom, with all of the authority that entails (and students here are polite to a fault and really do tend to defer to professors from all I have heard and what little I have seen), and to start prattling on about the same things I blog or op-ed about. Most every term I revise my notes for my lectures based on historiography, emphasis, whatever -- and my PhD is in the areas in which I lecture. It just seems brazen to me when professors go in and try to grind their axes just because they have a captive aufience. As it is, we all probaby do in subtle way let our politics be known -- the amount of emphasis I put on race in my classes probably gives my students some idea of where I am coming from. But that is rather different from a professor going into the classroom and, devoid of some sort of context, making sly comments about US foreign policy, or whatever. Just a few thoughts to try to link what Hugo is saying with concerns I bring to my own teaching.

William R. Clay - 8/30/2004

Your Dad hit a home run on this one. I share those feelings before the start of a new class module and never really put my finger on them. It’s not actual stage fright, as some might suggest, but more of feeling of “What do I know to teach others?”. What has changed is the intensity. I realize that while I’m not the top brain surgeon in teaching history, I’m far from the worse. Like you I hope I never lose the feeling totally; it is my touchstone of competence.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/30/2004

One of my dissertation advisers warned me that paranoia was the natural state of a doctoral student. I had not quite expected this state to continue. C'est la vie!

Hugo Schwyzer - 8/30/2004

Well, I had those suspicions all the way through the Ph.D. process. Even as they were signing it, I kept thinking "this is a mistake". But I assure you, degrees happen.

Manan Ahmed - 8/30/2004

I love that phrase: "suspicions of my own fradulence". Hits the nail on my head (on the coffin?). I get it every 3 weeks or when meeting with my advisors; whichever comes first. Not having tenure, I believe my suspicions WILL prove right one day soon.

History News Network