That damn clerical error

Alternatively titled: Why I feel like a fraud…

In the different grad programs I’ve been in, one of the most common sentiments expressed among my fellow students is the fear that one day, someone will finally realize that we’re frauds–that somehow our admission to a program was/is little more than a clerical error. Given the fact that I still feel like a fish out of water when it comes to declaring myself as a graduate student in English (just a year ago I was still a history graduate student), I essentially feel like the Wandering Jew in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (except completely different, because instead of being the embodiment of some gothic, mythical anti-Semitic stereotype with an upside-down crucifix carved into my face, I’m the embodiment of a lackluster character in a boring made-for-tv movie with the word “FRAUD” stamped in flaming invisible ink on my forehead). I hate the irrationality of this feeling, but it’s there, and it’s something I’m slowly but surely learning to counteract.

Today the feeling was brought about in one of my classes. The problem, as I see it, is that I do not think in a linear fashion. I pretend that I have a method that is more “organic,” but that’s just my way of covering up for the fact that I make crap up as I go along and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t (and when it doesn’t, let me tell you…it really doesn’t). I somehow managed to ace my logic course in college (they even asked me to be a tutor the next year, to which I responded with astonished laughter), but as anyone who knows me can attest, I have my own version of “logic” and my own way of working out problems. This doesn’t mean that I can’t think in a linear/logical fashion, it merely means that it isn’t natural for me. I’ve never even been able to do any sort of mind-mapping/brainstorming type of thing because it’s too concrete and linear for my tastes. If I were to visualize my thought process, I would say it’s more like a swarm of fireflies at night, lighting up in a rather haphazard manner. After being together for thirteen years, Apparent Dip can generally map out the connections between what I say, but I have an irritating tendency to speak to people as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation (little do they know, it’s because I have been having imaginary conversations with them in my head). To make a difficult situation worse, the filter between my brain and my mouth has major holes in it. I think out loud, and too often, people assume that when I say something, it is somehow the verbal equivalent of carving something in stone.

So, back to the undergrad class I sit in on (I warned you I wasn’t linear): we were doing small group work (which I hate), and analyzing a poem. I am crap when it comes to analyzing poetry on the fly. No one in my group was talking, and I hate awkward silences, so I started working out my thoughts. And I made a mistake. Unfortunately, one of the guys in my group is someone I would describe as a problem student. He’s apparently going through a Freudian phase, which is cool and all, but sometimes not everything (such as the Holocaust) can be reduced to Freud. He tends to railroad conversations in class. He reads other books about the Holocaust during class, and he carefully dresses himself in ennui. I get the feeling that he feels like he’s gracing us with his presence and his nuggets of psychological wisdom and that he feels like he has nothing to learn from the rest of us. So when I made the mistake (I said the phrase “biblical history” and I meant, I really did, to say “biblical metaphor”) he wouldn’t let it go politely, but instead looked at me and said “Yes, but this is an English class. You can’t believe the Bible is history.” I wanted to smack him and tell him about a four-letter word that I think he should learn (granted, there were a number of four-letter words in my mind, but my mother raised me to be nice): T-A-C-T. Instead, I let the guy get to me. Why? I mean, he’s an undergrad, I’m not. I know I do good work and that I just misspoke. I know that I wasn’t saying anything really intelligent, but my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet and I was actually thinking of how I had to read the next ten books of Paradise Lost by tomorrow. But I think it bothered me because, for a brief moment, I felt exposed. The invisible ink on my forehead became legible and all of the doubts I have about my ability as a scholar were seemingly there for the world to see. And this is something I really need to work on because the sad truth is: jerks exist everywhere. So the question I want to throw out to the few who have managed to read to the end of this really long, navel-gazing post is: What do you do? If you’ve had the clerical error syndrome, how do you deal with it? Can you? What do you do when someone makes you feel like an idiot? Or should I just stockpile large quantities of chocolate and wine for these (hopefully fleeting) moments of irrationality?

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14 responses to this post.

  1. What’s wrong with believing the bible is history? _Someone_ wrote it, that was a long time ago … ergo, it’s historical.

    but I have an irritating tendency to speak to people as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation (little do they know, it’s because I have been having imaginary conversations with them in my head). To make a difficult situation worse, the filter between my brain and my mouth has major holes in it.

    Oh my god, you are my second committee member. Luckily, we all love her to pieces and once we figured out the whole non-sequitor/imaginary conversations thing, talking to her got better.

    I would say stockpiling wine and chocolate is always a good thing — life in general has so many bumps in the road, not to mention grad school bumps, that having a little pleasurable reward around for contingencies is necessary.

    For dealing with my own undergrads who are giving me troubles and implying I am an idiot, I have a Look. It’s not quite a Mom Look, but it’s a similar look of authority. You can’t do that to fellow seminar members or professional colleagues when they’re being jerks, but you can work on letting it all run off your back because it’s much more about them projecting their insecurities than you. Sometimes you’re even in a place where you can even imply to them that this is so.

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  2. Sisyphus: I love the idea of a Look. I used to have one when I babysat my way through college–I think I need to dust it off. And re: the bible and history–I really just wanted to sit him down and tell him that just because he didn’t believe it was factually based does not mean that it isn’t a form of historical evidence, or that the author of the poem wasn’t using it as such. Moreover, he should at least try to understand that not everyone will feel the same way that he does–thus, it’s best to be a bit more open-minded and tactful/respectful in how one approaches a discussion like that.

    Yeah, the imaginary conversation thing is tough–I’ve gotten better about catching myself when I do it, but I can confuse the living daylights out of people. Although, it is rather amusing to go back and trace out the genealogy of my thoughts at times…half the time I don’t know where the hell I come up with stuff!

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  3. douschey undergrads (why yes, this is a slightly more juvenile response than yours, lol)! I was going to recommend a Look as well! Even though I’m barely out of undergrad, I often had to use this on unruly freshmen when I TAed (especially the one who kept trying to hit on me). It’s always been effective on my niece as well, but now that she’s two, she just tries to give me her own look. Too bad you can’t give undergrads time outs! hehe

    My mom does the imaginary conversation thing as well-in fact, she’ll often start half way through a sentence, leaving the rest of us completely confused! lol

    So, chin up-you’re a very smart person! When I made mistakes in class, I usually just laughed and said “Oh my god-you’re so right!” (like that time I referred to Churchill as the prime minister during WWI….), but I’m one of those people who constantly laugh at myself anyway. It did tend to defuse the situation though, and it took the arrogant people by surprise, since they take themselves so seriously.

    That’s the end of my rambly advice. Hope the rest of your day is better!

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  4. Posted by Queen Mother on February 12, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    I have to agree with Eva. Remember when you were a little girl and you corrected me in the middle of a song that I was brilliantly singing. My comment was that it was impolite (which the young man was) to correct others and believe it or not the world would not end if I sang the wrong words. What I am trying to say is let it run off your shoulders and realize that he is impolite and insecure.

    And remember only Hester had to wear a scarlet letter – you do not have to wear something emblazoned on your forehead because you are bright and you do belong right where you are. I just can’t believe that you have gotten where you are due to a multitude of clerical errors. I know that there is a great deal of incompetence in the world but not THAT much.

    I know that you have the “look” down pat. You had an expert for a teacher.

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  5. Eva: I usually do resort to humor as well–but I was just taken aback by the way he said things. And I feel bad for other people in the class because he has a tendency to completely shut down any sort of conversation. Ah well, live and learn I guess.

    Queen Mother: I have to say though–I was something like six years old at the time I “corrected” you–this student is not. In addition, I don’t think that correcting people is wrong per se, after all, it is my job as a teacher to make sure that people aren’t misinformed–but I think that there is a polite way to point out errors and an impolite way. I’m more upset by my own reaction–that I let it get to me–because I know deep down that I’m qualified. I guess I’m just looking for a mantra or something to remind myself of this and to stop myself from automatically responding in such a self-defeating way to someone else’s obvious insecurities.

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  6. I also get frustrated when people in seminars or classes tries to discount my argument based on a technicality (which is what it sounds like this dude was trying to do), or just in general dismiss a point I am making for no good reason, I typically try to turn things back to them. For examples, if I use the wrong term when describing something, and someone makes a big deal out of it to discredit the larger argument, I’ll say something like, “That’s fine, I misspoke, but my point still stands,” or “OK, I used the wrong word, but the argument is still valid” followed by some reworded version of the point. If it is really annoying me I’ll even do the “right right” as they are finishing their blurb as a way to let them know that it is not really an interesting point, more just a minor correction. Dismissing arguments based on straw-men arguments annoys the crap out of me, and unfortunately people who aren’t actually able to respond to the real issue will use technicalities as a crutch. I think it is a similar phenomenon to when you give people papers to proof and they come back with only comments on your grammar and/or punctuation. Yes, those things are important and need to be fixed, but they are separate from the argument. And more importantly, it is rare that those technicalities are actually large enough to interfere with the argument.

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  7. Thermochronic–that’s exactly the problem. Someone gets me on a technicality (and I’m actually more than happy to acknowledge that I’m wrong) but then I let it get to me and I get flustered. So instead of backing up my argument or trying to restate my essential point, I drop back into “I’m so stupid/not worthy mode,” which is just going to get me nowhere. I basically feel like I need to get a spine and accept that I have the authority (as Sisyphus points out, a lot of this is about authority) to say what I’m saying. Now I have some stock phrases to use (in addition to the Look). I’m armed and dangerous! 😉

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  8. I definitely worry about being a fraud and getting caught out — one of the things I do is to remember some of my best moments and some of the praise I’ve gotten and try to focus on the positive in order to get some perspective. I also tell myself that other people make mistakes too, and they probably don’t even remember mine, whereas I focus on my own mistakes obsessively. But probably the best way I know of to deal with it is to find some distraction — for me, it’s riding or some other kind of exercise, but it could be chocolate and wine too 🙂

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  9. Posted by Queen Mother on February 13, 2008 at 10:35 am

    I agree that you were just 6 but I am trying to say exactly what Thermochronic said (he does it so much better). The wrong word did not change what you were saying overall. This person just needs to be a jerk. I also agree that it is ok to correct – but kindly as you said. I just think that anyone would have understood what you were saying and that correction would not even have been necessary in this case.

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  10. Dorothy: I’ve been trying to funnel a lot of my frustration onto the treadmill lately, so that’s been helping. And I agree with the need for perspective: I have to remember, that I’m the only one who thinks as obsessively about myself as I do, and if someone else can think of nothing other than my mistakes, well…they need to find a hobby. 🙂

    Queen Mother: And that’s what I need–some key way to immediately deflect the person by saying something like: “Right, I misspoke, but my essential point stands.” I just get frustrated because what ends up happening, is that I immediately get flustered and look like a deer caught in the headlights. So instead of pointing out to the person that they are willfully missing my point, I end up falling apart, babbling even more incoherently, and thinking (for a moment) that I’m not qualified to even participate in the argument, which is just ridiculous.

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  11. Ahh, my academic soulmate! I always felt like a fraud. My whole group did. Our professors used to tell us how fraudulent they felt in grad school. My thesis director (who hadn’t been out of her PhD program long) told me she felt like a fraud. So, yeah, you’re not alone. There’s comfort in knowing really smart people feel like thieves and liars sometimes.

    As for linear thinking, I don’t do that very well at all. I’m a very roundabout, gotta talk it out kind of girl. While it makes me crazy sometimes it feels good when it all comes together doesn’t it?!

    And as for the snooty undergrad…he sounds like what we always called an intellectual m@sturbator. Intellectual self-gratification is one of my biggest peeves.

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  12. Andi: I found out more about him…he is indeed an intellectual m@sturbator. The thing is, he is really smart and talented, and in a way I hope he goes on to grad school…because he will have his arse handed to him on a platter when he tries to pull that holier-than-thou theory crap. Theory is important, but one needs to use it well, and reducing everything down to Freud? Not using it well. As Apparent Dip has commented many times (in reference to a disastrous Halloween costume I wore, when I claimed to be Athena but he kept saying I looked like the Little Caesar pizza guy): “Athena didn’t have to tell people she was the goddess of war…she just was.” So if this kid has to repeatedly laugh at other students in the class (which he has) and attempt to out-theorize them, well… me thinks he doth protest too much.

    And it must be that time of the year for the impostor syndrome…even the NYT had an article on it–it’s always good to know that I’m not the only one! 🙂

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  13. Here’s what you do: you feel better about yourself. After all, you’re only a fraud as a student, where someone might have misHEARD what you said and can’t prove it. Imagine being a fraud as an editor, ranting and raving about pet peeve grammatical errors, and then sending emails to colleagues with those very same grammatical errors you’ve told them you can’t abide. Then imagine the colleagues who can’t help but point them out to you. See, it’s not so bad being corrected by a lowly, obviously extremely insecure, has-to-feel-superior undergrad after all, is it?

    Oh, and P.S., you’ve just described yourself as thinking exactly the same way I do. I think it must be an indication of genius, no?

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  14. Emily: Yeah, I already feel better after watching him be even more brutal to his fellow classmates.

    I like the idea of this feeling being an indication of genius however, and I completely empathize with the grammatical insecurity! I’m constantly on the lookout for grammatical flaws and I’m always quite chagrined when they somehow appear in my own work! (I prefer to think that some evil grammar gnome sneaks them in there when I’m not looking, he he).

    Reply

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