Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why Is It So Hard to Believe?

The women who visit me here at this blog have pretty much nailed much of what I feel as I wander through this academic process. I collected some quotes from them, but let me begin with one that made my jaw drop, because it is exactly what I think:
sometimes seminars are so draining and kids use LOTS of big words, that i feel like i don't belong--like i'm not really smart and i got in by luck, by chance--and they will soon find me out. -Nubian
My God. I've felt like that from approximately day one of this program. Quinn's going to get tired of me using her as an example, but she's such a good one. Anyway, she and I and a lot of other smart women had this amazing class together. I would sit back and listen to them discuss historians and historiography and various theories that I knew absolutely nothing about and I'd think, "I'm never going to know this stuff like they do." And I still feel that way, in large part, like a faker, like I'm one step away from discovery.

That's why I gave this post this title. I don't know what it will take to convince me, to make me believe that I have the right and the ability to do this. I know that I'm good at school and I've been blessed to have the financial support--full scholarship as an undergrad, 3 nice fellowships as a doctoral student--to support that belief. Still, part of me attributes those fellowships to luck (I wonder who else was applying? I must have had some good recommendation letters.) rather than my abilities. Why?

I think it is centered in who I am--black, woman, having been raised in a Baptist household, etc. Being black and a PhD student, there is always this feeling--can't decide if it's internal or external--that you're an anomaly of sorts. Not solely because you don't see many peope with your racial background (though that is a HUGE part of it) but because you're here at all. It can't be just intelligence, I reason, because I know lots of smart black people who aren't where I am, who didn't even go to college. Why am I here while they are not? Is it chance?

And, as a woman, I really believe I attribute far too much to external factors and not my abilities. To do otherwise would be immodest, a charge that many women don't take lightly. I think as a woman also, I have an idea of my success as a shared thing--that lots of people have had a part in it--rather than a measure of my individual abilitites--a claim I think many men are more comfortable making.

That purported immodesty is an issue for me not only as a woman, but as a Christian, I think. When you come from a hellfire and brimstone background, you internalize the warning to not take too much pride in anything, lest God take it away from you. And, by the very nature of Christianity, you learn not to give yourself too much credit for anything--there's a reason why many parodies of black Christian church services begin with "Giving all honor and glory to God." Thus saying that I've come this far because I'm smart or I'm determined is troublesome because it obscures the role of "God's blessings" in my life. And even when you struggle to try to understand Christianity in new ways, aside from the ones you were taught as a child, it's hard to leave behind all the admonitions and the idea that pride can be deadly.

The self-doubt can be immobilizing--I worry, in my case, that I will defeat myself out of some strange, twisted psychological reason. And, when you doubt yourself, you can't enjoy people's praise. For example, I passed my comprehensive exams with distinction--one of my committee members told me out of all the universities at which he'd worked, mine were the best he'd ever read. That did make me happy, but it also made me anxious, because I live in fear that the dissertation won't live up to the expectations my committe may have formed based on my grades and my exams. So every rough draft becomes a battle--I can't let it be too rough, or Advisor will realize that I'm a faker--and every mistake is amplified in my brain.

I've even managed, in a way, to dissociate my writing from myself. As a grad student, it is what I get the most compliments on. But I am dismissive--"Oh, it comes easily to me, so it must not be worthy of praise," "Oh, I can do the writing, but what about the research--that's the really hard part," and so forth and so on. I can't allow myself to think of it as a skill that I've mastered, but more of a talent--something I am "lucky" enough to know how to do.

But the most frustrating part is the reason that I began this post with Nubian and Quinn: I absolutely hate the fact that other women feel like this. That Nubian and Quinn sometimes doubt themselves is unbelievable and unfair to me because I think know they are brilliant. I see the evidence in this blog world and, in Quinn's case, in real life. That they even have a single moment when they feel like I do makes me want to scream.

Why is it so hard for us to believe? What will it take for us to see?

**Update--A little of Quinn's thoughts.

Below are other observations my brilliant readers have made about this issue:

If you weren't worthy of this work and if you weren't brilliant, you would not even be in the phd program in the first place-Nubian

You can do if you put your mind to it! Ragey

I think this is a hard thing, especially for women, to do. To talk confidently about ourselves without seeming arrogant-Quinn

But, you wouldn't have made it this far if you didn't have the chops.-Gwyneth

You have lots to say... important things to say. Say them. -Gwyneth

You just need to make the point that people besides your committee recognize the skills.-Rebecca


Professor Zero said...

I and some other non-underprivileged friends had this feeling in early grad school, and then late grad school ... but not nearly as badly then as later, when we became assistant professors. It can be very disabling, and it needs to be fought off. It is one thing to be unassuming, and to know one doesn't know everything, but quite another to underestimate oneself to this degree.

I think it was 'so hard to believe'
in my case, in large part, because of misogyny in my upbringing and in the profession - which I did not see (and so could not combat within myself) because I was so used to it.

ChasingMoksha said...

I had this feeling when I was an undergraduate! I don't feel like a fraud anymore, well at least not always. If anything I have to keep my dismissing in check. Because I will dismiss a mofo (out of respect of your non cursing policy) with a quickness. Honesty, now that I see with different eyes, I think most of the ones that used to scare me are the real phonies. I hate to play the either/or game, or the zero sum game, but I was only feeling like a fraud because I was thinking others were not fradulent. Now I trust my instincts. You would not have gotten in the program if you were not the creame of the crop. Period.

elle said...

out of respect of your non cursing policy
moksha, girl, please!
i'm trying to cut my cussing IRL. feel free to express yourself here.

luisa said...

This is a really great post and makes me feel not so alone in the whole applying to grad school bid.
I'm petrified that my teachers will get my application and think that my writing is horrible and wonder how I got such good grades as an undergrad.

So thank you for explaining the feeling so well (I wish I had something inspiring to say).

elle said...

luisa, that is inspiring--you're still applying despite the fear!

Kristen said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog! I've enjoyed reading yours as well. I know the feelings of inadequacy that you've expressed...I frequently wonder if I will really be able to make it through grad school. I too feel like other students have a truly solid grasp of theory and historiography, but that I am still a few steps behind. Oh, and I was wondering what period you study? I focus on the nineteenth century, looking mostly at slavery, abolition, and other elements of social history.

elle said...

20th century! My "fields" are allegedly southern labor and African American.

Allegedly, b/c i'm not quite the expert yet.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...