Being Intelligent is Not Fun

I have written about Impostor Syndrome and its impact on graduate students, and I’ve been thinking about it. I split the original post into its published form as well as a couple short drafts to turn into future posts. I get to develop the idea further, and you get to see activity on the blog. This is “low-hanging fruit,” and this is something that graduate school has told me is great to harvest (although I think it offensive).

To bring the title to bear, being intelligent is not fun, nor does it provide protection against petty attacks from mundane people (or mundane attacks from petty people). This will come as no surprise to anyone who has actually been through a graduate program in the USA–graduate school here, rather than an Arena of Ideas, is an Arena of Obsequiousness. Fealty to one’s liege, which continues post-graduate school to include fealty to one’s funding agency/agencies. Moreover, intelligence isn’t what graduate school measures, develops, or fosters, and intelligence doesn’t provide total insulation against impostor syndrome as it plays out in graduate school.

I have future book-writing plans, so I won’t say much more than this here. Suffice it to say, when one’s liege is a lazy, self-absorbed idiot, being intelligent and an intellectual is a liability.

The closest I have come to falling victim to impostor syndrome (outside of comparing myself with the person that ought exist) was when a faculty member said I was one of the smartest people in the building. I respected him as a deep and agile thinker, so I was stunned. When I parried by pointing out that I was swimming with weak and half-dead fish, he interrupted me. He told me that, no, he meant in the building. Faculty, staff, students, administration. Everyone.

I was terrified. I felt like I’d somehow sold him a bill of goods about who I am and my abilities. I felt like a fraud and like I had willfully defrauded him somehow. In hindsight, he was trying to warn me, and I missed it. Petty people in mid-career don’t like to be confronted with the fact that others who have not even begun their careers can quite capably out-maneuver them intellectually. In hindsight, I gather that several insecure people must have been worried that I would eclipse them and their work. The truth of the matter was that, no, I wanted to do my work, but this made no difference.

And now I close with a rare moral, as this is a cautionary tale: being the smartest person in a particular room–or building, even–does not insulate you from the petty whims of others. Quite the contrary, it has been my direct experience that, in the American Public University system, being intelligent and an intellectual paints a huge target on your back while also isolating you from the rest of the graduate student body and experience. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog; in graduate school, everyone knows you’re an intellectual, and they will try to destroy this.

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