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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Impostor Syndrome & The Dunning–Kruger Effect

I have heard that graduate students suffer from Impostor Syndrome. I suppose that I do, too, but not in the traditional fashion.

Apparently, many graduate students decide that they do not deserve to attend the university, they think a mistake was made and that they are impostors. They believe that faculty are brilliant and untouchable and that their peers are highly intelligent and motivated. And that, somehow, these faculty and fellow students are correctly placed. I never felt this going through my graduate program, as the coursework was simple, as were most of my “peers.” My complaint, and its reception, mirrored an exchange between Lisa Simpson and Principal Skinner. Indeed, it looks like most of my peers made it through their programs under the Dunning–Kruger effect, and sucked faculty into this vortex of self-promotion and -delusion. And they were successful.

I have written earlier about my intense dislike of bio-sketches. When confronted with the blank page and the task of defining myself–and impressively!–it feels so ridiculous and artificial that it overwhelms me. It is when I am confronted with my own vision of who I ought to be that I feel truly inadequate. Furthermore, that person is not me. He has more hair, more hope, more support, less weight. He is significantly happier than I and has sufficient funds to be a “regular” at one or two places. Or to buy a cup of coffee. His major professor supports him and is interested in the work he does–or at least returns emails, phone calls, and text messages. He also isn’t quagmired and stalled under the crushing misconception that earning a PhD requires a lifetime of research and successful inquiry.

God, I envy that guy. He has, while not everything, enough. He has been given a fair shake and has made the best of it. And he is able to capture this in writing–he writes about himself fluidly, simply, and with praise. I suppose that, while I’m here, I should point out that he is also in sync with his time and place.

I hate that asshole.

Bio-sketches are Vile (CVs and Résumés, too)

Bio-sketches distinctly upset me. “Write something about yourself” takes on a new and terrible dimension when wooing and explaining what you do and why people should listen. I have always hated the “first-day” exercises where the professor encourages students to “share something” about themselves. I think that I eventually developed a “name-rank-serial number” approach to this. Interested parties can visit with me socially, as I would with them, after the class session.

I so upset by bio-sketches primarily because I strive to shed philosophical notions of ego. In this vein, “I” dislike seeing “I” so much, but there is little that may be done for it–other than writing flabby passive-voice sentences like this. I can help others, then temporarily embracing ego and identity as necessary artifacts and side-effects of language is the price I must pay. I hate the chest-thumping that sometimes seems mandatory in academia. I dislike the binding of self–and the defining of self–that seems requisite.

In the past, I tried to write a bio-sketch. However, I have never written one to satisfaction. I am not the smartest person I know, but this is by design–after all, who wants dopey friends? So I must write something that is the academic equivalent of, “I’m a genius,” and I just cannot bring myself to do it, or to write anything that doesn’t sound either forced or rehearsed. At this point, I’d settle for, “I’m reasonable” or “I’m approachable” or even “I’m thoroughly pissed at some people now and I’m going to remedy this,” though this last one probably isn’t recommended for press. I’d settle for these things because it would mean that I had moved beyond, “I’m burned out,” “I’m exhausted,” “I’m out of hope.”

This inability to write a good–or passable–bio-sketch, I think, comes down to Integrity. I am not comfortable outlining what I “do,” as I “do” quite a few things, none of which are terribly interesting to academic journal readers. And when I start to think about what it is that I have done academically, the obvious accomplishment is being four years ahead of other publication with respect to an idea I developed and implemented in my MS thesis. But that sounds too self-congratulatory and smug to me (even here, even now, I feel the need to point out that I’m stating fact. I learned things, wrote some software, taught something interesting at my defense; good times.), so I don’t write about that.

I have to wonder: do people really believe the things they write about themselves, especially when the copy is studded with self-congratulatory and -aggrandizing text? Is it indeed the case that who we are is what we tell others about ourselves? I think not, favoring a shared-dialogue view, but the only logical explanation that appears to me is that people who write self-congratulatory prose about themselves must believe that who they are is who they describe.