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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:

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.

Conferences this summer (1): Science Fiction and the Bible at EABS (also, interdisciplinarity)

The conference unit I chair – “Science Fiction and the Bible” – is going into its second year. It started out at the EABS’ 2013 meeting as an exploratory session and was upgraded to a three-year research programme afterwards.

Last year at the joint SBL/EABS meeting in Vienna, it had its highest volume of submissions so far. It is quite a specialized niche concern and – as regards submission numbers – cannot be compared to the big blockbuster sessions “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible”, “New Testament” or “Reception History”. I still see it very much as an exploration of what can be done beyond the latest in historical-critical approaches and beyond reception-historical “list-science” (“here is a list of biblical references in the TV show *title*”).

I have spoken to many scholars working on interdisciplinary topics who have found it hard to inspire others to try interdisciplinary approaches, too. While many speak of interdisciplinarity as the future of the discipline (Biblical Studies), it seems to be quite difficult to get people to try. It’s understandable: everyone is really busy and an interdisciplinary topic requires really sitting down and doing reading from scratch. The “Science Fiction and the Bible” panel gets many submissions from graduate students. Maybe because they are not yet as burdened with administrative duties, deaning, committee work, and tenure pressures. It’s not really possible to write an interdisciplinary paper on the plane to the conference.

Interdisciplinarity makes you potentially vulnerable to sweeping dismissal: “You’re not a sociologist!” – “You don’t have a background in network theory!” I have never encountered such responses in real life, thankfully. In most interdisciplinary panels I have been to, discussion is usually not burdened by fear of being dismissed, but excited, supportive, and lively.

However, interdisciplinarity sometimes puts you in front of a room full of blank stares and the only feedback you get after a presentation on – say – the sociology of scholarly reading in Biblical Studies, which you spent half a year writing might be: “So are you saying Caleb is not a historical figure…?” (So you get on your 700-Euro flight home and feel guilty about your carbon footprint while thinking, “I could have just read this paper to my cat…”)

The most important thing to take away from conferences is constructive feedback and especially new ideas that develop in conversation between one person’s ideas and another person’s ideas. The point is not really being applauded for a great presentation but being constructively challenged and coming away with new ideas. In this spirit, I try to get people with  different ideas and approaches into the same room and leave plenty of space for discussion.

Long story short, here is the line-up for this year’s “Science Fiction and the Bible” panel, EABS Annual Meeting, Cordoba, Spain, July 12-15, 2015:

Science Fiction and the Bible

“Jewish apocalyptic in Japanese pop culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion and Shin Megami Tensei”

Carlos Santos, University of Salamanca


“Marionettes, Cyborgs and Forbidden Fruit: Understanding the Technological Singularity as a Fall From Grace”

Alice A. Petty, Stanford University


“Local Apocalypses: The Wicked City and Human Abundance in the Hebrew Bible and in Science Fiction and Popular Science of the 1960s-1970s”

Eva Rose Miller, Oxford University


“‘Let Us Go into the Field:’ Genesis 4 in ‘Dexter’ and ‘The Walking Dead'”

Eliza Rosenberg, McGill University

My book is out now

I made what I did for my PhD into a book. It’s called “The Nowhere Bible” and it is available now from De Gruyter.

I called it that because it is about utopia – the no-place-good-place – and about science fiction, too – the always-not-quite-there.

The implicit question underlying the whole experiment is: what if the Bible were utopia or science fiction? What if we naturally assumed utopian theory or science fiction theory were the appropriate approach to it, because the worlds it imagines are not found in reality? What would happen to the text, to texts-about-the-text, and to biblical scholarship? In the end, the book is to some extent about the Bible (or rather the biblical passage I use as a case study), but it is mainly about hermeneutics and the different kinds of wishful thinking with which the Bible is often approached.