Impostor syndrome and punk rock

You often hear about impostor syndrome in academia.

Feeling like an impostor is definitely a feeling I’m familiar with: you feel like everything  you’ve achieved is due to coincidence, luck, because someone felt sorry for you and had a generous day, or because the better person was sick that day. It’s difficult to take credit for your work. It feels like catastrophe will be upon you any time now and you will be revealed as – well – an impostor who is not actually good at what they are doing, who shouldn’t be there, who shouldn’t have the authority someone inexplicably granted them. I have had this feeling forever. Whenever I got a good grade, when my first conference paper was accepted, when my first article was accepted, whenever someone tells me I did well, when my book proposal was accepted, when I won an election, when I got a job.

Of course, if somebody else were to list their achievements, I would assume that they’re really, really good. But I am an impostor. I shouldn’t be doing this etc. etc.

(Nevermind that I have childhood-competition issues; I once won a gymnastics competition because the better kid wasn’t there. For real. Not impostor-syndrome speaking.)

I have heard that the impostor feeling is so crushing for some people that they stop being able to do anything altogether and freeze up.

When I feel a freeze-up coming on because of feeling like an impostor, it helps me to think or read about punk and DIY, and to focus away from feelings and focus on the project: is it worth doing? Do I want to do it or do I want to wait until somebody comes along who is supposedly more “qualified” to do it?

I’ve come to punk rock later than most people, I assume. It seems like such a teenage thing to be into. Looking at my teenage CD collection, I’m sure the seeds were planted then, but I really started to think about punk rock ethics when someone told me (jokingly, I thought), “You’re the most punk rock person I know.”

I didn’t know much about it then, so I thought it was just a joke. After all, I was just doing a PhD on an impossible, tenuous topic that nobody cares about and I was running and taking ballet class to counter-balance long hours at the desk. I don’t dress particularly edgy, I don’t dye my hair, I don’t live in somebody’s basement, my piercings are socially acceptable, I appreciate some financial security… Surely, I wasn’t punk rock.

But little by little, I was introduced to more of the music, to Henry Rollins’ writing and spoken word stuff, I watched rockumentaries, read up on DIY and zine culture, and got my hands on a copy of Michael Azzerad’s book “Our Band Could Be Your Life”. And while I still don’t feel immersed in that culture and wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as punk, there are some aspects that seem familiar or intuitive because they have been part of my (work) ethic, well, forever. The way Henry Rollins describes Black Flag’s work ethic – that was like putting in relentless hours towards passing my language exams or towards writing a PhD thesis (or book). Why? Not for financial gain, for sure! Because it was important! It was the right thing to do, ethically. It was important work, then, there – and if not me, then who?

Privilege and elite are factors that play into the making of the impostor feeling, I believe. “I’m not as good as X.” – “I don’t deserve this because I wasn’t educated at Z.” – “I wasn’t a child prodigy, so who am I to think I can ever get good enough at this to succeed?”

If these thoughts sound familiar –  Minutemen; Black Flag; Rollins reading “Get in the Van” (it’s on YouTube); this article on punk and business – and considering whether the task or the project at hand is more important than an individual fear of failure or of being exposed as an impostor.

My approach to writing my PhD was very much like what Steve Albini is quoted as saying in the article linked to above:

“And if you have a week to get something done, then you get it done in a week. Because if it takes eight days, the band goes back to Belgium without their album.”

My PhD was a job to get done; I had four years’ of funding to do it – no excuses. That ethic is why writing the thing despite mild impostor tendencies wasn’t a problem for me. At the time I didn’t know it was an ethic associated with punk and DIY.

I also found the following quotation helpful when chanelling punk to get over being too scared to try something because of doubts as to whether I “deserved” to do it and whether I deserved to possibly succeed at it:

“They [indie bands] had to overcome a lifetime of training in order to get to the point where they could feel like a scruffy, bibulous indie band from Minneapolis with an album called Let It Be was just as valid as the band that first used the title.” (Azzerad, 10)

I have encountered quite a few judgmental persons who would raise eyebrows at representatives from lesser-known universities and I have heard way too many people go, “Oooh, Harvard-trained!” I think overcoming impostor-feelings could be related to overcoming that “lifetime of training” to believe in the elite and in entitlement.

That part of Azzerad’s book resonated with me because I grew up thinking until very recently that you had to have been a prodigy to deserve even doing something. Given my current situation as an “independent scholar” – i.e., someone without an academic job – I’ve been thinking about whether you need institutional backing to validate your output; what conclusions do people jump to when it says “Independent Scholar” on your conference name badge? That you couldn’t make it? That your output is of a lesser quality because you’re not surrounded by academic input in your professional life?

It doesn’t matter! A more constructive question to ponder is: Is the project worth doing and do you want to be the person to do it right now?

EABS 2016: Call for Papers “Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Cultures”

The call for papers for EABS and IOQS meeting 2016 is now open for submissions. More than 60 research groups on cutting edge topics are inviting abstracts.

The conference will take place in Leuven, Belgium, July 17-20.

I am especially pleased that the project on fan fiction and ancient scribal cultures on which I am collaborating with two wonderful colleagues – Mette Bundvad in Copenhagen and Sonja Ammann in Berlin – is starting its three-year run as an EABS research group.

In this first year, we are inviting contributions on expressions of identity in contemporary fan fiction.

We would like to have a look at whether we can use contemporary fan fiction to investigate questions related to authorship and identity in ancient texts. The panel especially encourages interdisciplinarity and we would love to hear from those with an expertise in fan fiction or fan studies, even if they have never thought about ancient scribal cultures before.

You can read the full call for papers here:

“Welcome to Night Vale”, Utopia, Horror

I’ve finished reading the “Welcome to Night Vale” novel (by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor). I was a little skeptical before picking it up because after 80 plus episodes of the podcast (listen/read transcripts here), I sometimes find the “weird” a little predictable. Nevertheless, I am still such a huge fan of the calm poetic realistic horror of the podcast, the way it does intersectionality, the atmosphere, the world, the characters etc etc, that of course I was going to read the novel. I loved it because it makes the fictional little town of Night Vale so three-dimensional. It gives a new perspective on the town’s inhabitants, on Cecil, on Cecil & Carlos, on the radio show, the town, its way of life. And indirectly it speaks a lot about why Night Vale is so appealing, despite being occasionally horrific. Boiled down to two lines of dialogue from the novel, the utopian gist of Night Vale is:

“‘Thank you for keeping me company in my nightmare.’ […] ‘Nah, it’s our nightmare now.'”

I started following the podcast when there were about 40 ish episodes. A friend had pointed out on Facebook how well “Welcome to Night Vale” deals with disability-related topics, so I went and checked it out. Another thing that jumped out at me after only a few episodes was that I never saw it niched or labeled as LGBT yet a romantic relationship between two men plays a central role (“central” when it’s not currently raining dead animals from a glow cloud, of course). I did see it niched/labeled/described as “horror”, though, as “Lynchian”, as “terrifying”. I have thought about genre a lot; some say, genre depends on what the reader perceives or expects. To me, Night Vale is weirdly, contemporarily utopian in terms of what it does as a piece of fiction and in terms of the world it creates. I don’t develop huge fan-crushes very often, but currently I join those who say “‘I’m packing up and moving to Night Vale'” (e.g., a reviewer of the novel, quoted on the book’s cover), because Night Vale seems like such a safe space (despite the fact that the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home leaves her knives lying around in the kitchen). Going there for a few minutes feels like a little utopian respite from real-life right-wing political extremism, backlashes, hate crime, bullying, anxiety, ableism, and so on. But it also does not feel like escapism: Night Vale seems to be tethered to reality and it evokes this feeling of relief only because it is so different from reality and much other fiction.

The creators of the podcast have said that when thinking up Night Vale (a small desert town) they imagined a place in which all conspiracy theories were true. Before I came across that statement, I also felt that Night Vale was a place where everything that hides under your bed or in the corners of your anxious thoughts during insomnia is brought out into the open. So what’s left to hide under your bed, what’s left to worry about? Nothing really, because the whole town is in the same situation – dealing with, living with, fighting whatever might be secretly terrifying in real life. In Night Vale you may be in danger if you enter the dog park, acknowledge an angel, enter the library, attend a company picnic or intern at the radio station, but at least you’re not in danger because you’re a guy dating a guy (for example). You’re not weird – you just choose to appear in different bodies, or maybe you are a disembodied hand or sentient haze. You don’t need fixing and you can count on your fellow citizens of Night Vale to just get that.

In Night Vale there don’t seem to be any token characters – or maybe all of them are. To me, when it comes to fandom, it’s mostly a mix of “I want to be them” or “I want to be friends with them”. Here, it is similar. I want to be friends with the inhabitants of Night Vale. It feels realistic to me to be friends with them, because they are not token and because they are not the featureless inhabitants of some frightening, smooth utopia. They quarrel, discuss, fight, have barbeques and encourage each other to use their wings (if they happen to have a pair) to try flying up above the roof – like normal people.

SBL/AAR 2015

At the SBL/AAR in Atlanta I got to chair a session of the Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship whose theme was imaginal worlds, canon, and fan fiction – a topic I am currently very interested in but unfortunately lack the time to really work on myself. It was good to hear from others, though. There was much to say and it seemed that the discussion time was too short, as so often. There is a detailed description of the panel by James McGrath here.

At the book fair, I was happy to see my own book exhibited at De Gruyter and also very excited to see a preview copy of a handbook I am really looking forward to getting my hands on: The Bible in Motion, edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, to which I contributed an essay on Science Fiction film and biblical reception. A fellow contributor has blogged about the books (there are two parts) here.

Enough of the ads.

As normal and expected at this stage of my life/career, I spoke to many friends about the academic job market. I don’t think I have spoken to anyone who is really happy with their job situation: you may have a job but also have a two-body problem; you may have a job, but it’s temporary; you may be adjuncting, but your earnings are pocket money, etc. I myself am very likely on my way out of academia. I may keep it as a sort of hobby if it can be accommodated; we’ll see. Anecdotally: borrowing access to Stanford library is $500 per year if you are not affiliated with a university in the region. As one of those mysterious “independent scholars” (“So… where are you from? What do you do…?”) it can be nice to view the circus of SBL/AAR with that little bit of detachment. Unfortunately, feeling that nothing is really at stake – not a job, not a career, not tenure, not a performance review of sorts – I also question the purpose of it all at every turn. I didn’t do a full schedule of papers, but I’m glad I went to one that felt like a kick in the stomach, because it really brought reality back into abstract discussion of possibly unknowable pasts: Karen Langton’s paper delivered in the “Reading, Theory, and the Bible” panel was about reclaiming the real bases of metaphors, in particular childbirth metaphors. She opposed the disappearance of the pregnant female body behind the detached discussion of the concept of “metaphor”. Her presentation (one might call it a performance, really) on childbirth metaphors in the Bible was supplemented by images of birthing women, and graphic images of violence suffered by pregnant women in wars and massacres. An academic paper rarely moves you to tears, but I was choking back tears all through her presentation. (Something that normally only happens to me in papers by Francis Landy but there simply because they are so beautiful.) Somehow Karen Langton’s presentation brought reality back into it all and also reminded me that the humanities are best equipped to make at least some sense of the absurdities of the world and must absolutely not be starved to death.

This year I went to the conference mainly for three reasons: to chair the session whose theme I’m really interested in, to hang out with as many friends as much as possible, and to attend a dinner at which a Festschrift was presented to a colleague who I have been very lucky to have had as a mentor for a few years.

Fan Fiction, Canon, Authority

This week, a colleague and I interviewed a fan fiction writer for the upcoming workshop “Fan Fiction and the Study of Scribal Culture” (EABS Annual Meeting, Cordoba, Spain, July 12-15).

It was great to get to bombard her with questions about canon, the authority of canon, but also: why write “more of”? What is it about a canonical piece that makes you need more, fill in gaps, fix plotholes? The answer to that question was not analytical, it was emotional. You write because you love your canon.

It was a fascinating conversation and it showed many similarities as well as a deluge of dissimilarities between writing fan fiction and studying parabiblical texts, rewritten Bible, Midrash etc.

We talked about fluctuating canons, that canon is a choice; we talked about writing as a communal activity, where those who know the canon as well as you do help and pitch in; about the joy of reading more of a story you love, the power that comes with writing and re-writing, and also the limitations imposed upon that power – those instances where the writer must not deviate from the canon or the writing/reading community imposes certain codes of practice (you do not write yourself into a story, for example).

We talked about gender, anonymity, pseudepigraphy, slash fiction and ships, and the way practitioners disappoint theoreticians by doing something theory did not at all anticipate.

I look forward to putting the material from this interview into a relationship (ship, hehe) with biblical scholarship on Bible, canon, authority, and commentary in the next few weeks and to presenting the results with my colleagues at the conference in Cordoba.