Humbugs, Frauds and Scam Artists

For whatever reason the "impostor complex" is fairly prevalent in higher education. Apparently, it's especially acute in science and engineering departments, but to one degree or another many highly-competent academics are internally convinced that they are undeserving of their successes despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. I'm certainly a prime example. After nearly 20 years of teaching, awards for excellence in the classroom, recognition by my peers and wonderful student evaluations, I am loathe to ever call myself a good professor.

The root of any impostor complex, of course, is a tendency to attribute one's successes to dumb luck or a talent for deceiving others. What is teaching, after all, but standing in front of a room full of students and convincing them that you know a lot more about something than you actually do? And anyone who has taught for a while has made the disquieting discovery that some fact you have been happily passing on for years is wrong -- and not just wrong, but hilariously, mind-blowingly wrong. It's something any semi-intelligent sophomore should have known.

I was actually in the first year of my Master's program before I stopped gassing on about the French existentialist writer Albert CAY-mus (as in rhymes with "blame us"). Ye Gods but teaching is filled with opportunities for exposing what Whitman called "the dark, suspicious pools of accomplishment." Indeed, the list of howlers I've passed on in the classroom as heavenly gospel is certainly not one I'd care to enumerate.

On the other hand, there are times when you unaccountably lurch onto the truth. More than once I've come across some high-flown pedagogic strategy only to recognize it as a technique I have messed around with in complete ignorance of the research that supports it. During this winter break, too, I have been watching a series of lectures by the Classicist Donald Kagan at Yale. In one he off-handedly sketched out and endorsed the entire premise of my Introduction to Humanities course. Donald Kagan and Yale no less? Doesn't matter. It was no doubt a lucky guess on my part. I remain as big a fraud as ever. I'm convinced of it.

But that's okay. I would much rather suffer from an impostor complex than its opposite: the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is when incompetent people find it impossible to accept their own incompetence. I've met a few of these types in higher education and they scare the hell out of me. Give me a dithering, incompetent Hamlet any day.

Vive l'incompetence!

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