Sarah Pett

Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)

On Impostor Syndrome and the Importance of Knowing Your Limitations

Yesterday I was [cue sarcastic voice] lucky enough to participate in a friendly exchange of views on the #RhodesHasFallen issue on twitter with someone who works in politics and international relations. If I hadn’t sworn off using gendered language one of the words I might use to describe the interaction would be m—plaining, but I have, and this is one of the reasons why I won’t be using it. It’s not, however, the only reason. Instead, what for me came out of the patronising suggestion that myself and, more importantly, the students involved in the #RhodesMustFall campaign do not understand the distinction between cultural protest and political change, nor the ways in which the symbolism of colonialism interacts with the lived experience of oppression in contemporary South Africa, is a series of connected issues that I think are central to the kinds of change that we need to move towards in higher education in the UK.

The first of these issues is what Samantha Asamadu (aka @honestlyabroad) and others are talking about as part of the Media Diversified manifesto: the belief in the mainstream media that white people miraculously have innate expertise on a wide range of region-specific issues, above and beyond PoC who work/live/have studied these regions in depth, and can hop from context to context with ease. Pointing out that the same thing happens in academia is not particularly groundbreaking, I know, and is perhaps clouded by the increasing need for young academics to be jacks of all trades when it comes to teaching. But I think it’s an issue in need of further debate. One of the ways in which British academia keeps diversity at a minimum is through similar assumptions about the ways in which expertise aligns–or not–with race, class, and gender in particular. A recent example of this can be found in the launch of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS) which, as this Vice article, among others, points out has not a single editor, advisory board member, or contributor of Somali origin – an incident that is not isolated. As one of my students (of Somali origin) pointed out last term, pretty much all the books on Somalia and Somaliland in the SOAS library are written “by white people” and “to be honest, are not really on point.”* The reaction to the critique of the journal (most of which you can find under the hashtag CadaanStudies) is also telling, and has hopefully outed at least one European academic as a small-minded bigot whose faith in his own miraculous expertise epitomizes the problems I’m describing here (again, see the Vice article).

Many different factors are at work here, including the valuing of individual work (the monograph) over collaboration and the construction/convention of objectivity in academic writing – both factors that are, perhaps not coincidentally, particularly ‘masculine,’ and which feminist scholars such as Margrit Shildrick have both deconstructed and offered alternatives to (I’m not an expert on this particular issue, so please add anything of relevance for further reading in the comments section!). The turn towards comparative study and the idea of the transnational also contribute, encouraging researchers to mimic the incessant border-crossing that often characterizes the work of the “white expert” journalist.  All of this should, I think, prompt us to ask more probing questions about what kind of work scholarship of this nature does, and who it benefits. My money’s on the white expert.

I know I’m treading on volatile ground here, and what I don’t want to suggest is that expertise and respect for subjects outside of one’s personal experience are not possible and valid. I do, however, think we need more critical reflection in academia on the idea of expertise, what it requires, and where it resides, and more willingness to discuss positionality in relation to teaching and research: willingness that requires we step out of the protective exoskeleton of expertise and acknowledge our limitations. This is where impostor syndrome comes in. Young academics, and particularly young female academics, tend to talk a lot about impostor syndrome: the feeling of knowing nothing, and of having nothing of value to say. This is not a good thing. And yet, it’s also telling that these reflective questions about our limitations as researchers (and often too as teachers) are pathologized in ways that encourage self-blame, and are considered both undesirable and in need of eradication. Obviously, I’m all for empowering young female academics, and know well the toll that feelings of inadequacy can have on productivity and confidence. If there was a magic pill to cure impostor syndrome, I’d have taken it without a second thought. And yet, I also think it might be time to rebrand impostor syndrome: to embrace acknowledging and exploring one’s limitations as an important antidote to the arrogance of the expert. What if we could harness the energy spent in doubting ourselves and in trying to overcome those doubts, and use it to change the acceptable face of academia from that of the expert to that of the reflective, passionate, informed and engaged researcher-teacher – a researcher-teacher fully cognisant of their limitations, open to differences of opinion, and eager to collaborate in order to produce scholarship of real meaning and value? This is something I’m thinking more and more about as I begin to put together a piece on the Global Shakespeare course I’ve taught at SOAS this year for Shakespeare in Southern Africa, and contemplate how to go about working and writing with my students. I’ll keep you posted on what works and what doesn’t.

*Yes, I know, my students rock. The future is not just safe, but totally awesome, in their hands.


4 comments on “On Impostor Syndrome and the Importance of Knowing Your Limitations

  1. edifiedlistener
    April 14, 2015

    ” to change the acceptable face of academia from that of the expert to that of the reflective, passionate, informed and engaged researcher-teacher” This sounds nearly utopian and yet I fully agree. What if…? The standard images and expectations are so deeply entrenched in our ways of thinking and of course discussing and the role of “expert” still carries a masculine and also Western connotation in most academic circles.
    It must pay off to think and express and engage in these other ways. HybridPedagogy ( @hybridped ) seems to be pursuing this route. Good luck! Your, our cause is a worthy one.

  2. essiepett
    April 15, 2015

    Yes, big fan of HybridPedagogy! And many others, including @ProfessMoravec and @HelenRogers19c. Thanks for encouragement and solidarity. I’m all for utopian thinking about HE: it can and should be better. For everyone!

  3. Lucy Hodgetts
    June 3, 2015

    Hi Sarah – with regards to your fascinating blog posts and your recent piece in ‘The Conversation’, this CFP on internationalisation and the curriculum might be of interest:

    • essiepett
      June 25, 2015

      Ah thanks, and sorry for the delay in approving this – been a very busy month!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on April 10, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 22 other followers

Follow me on Twitter


PhD Submission

The beginning of the rest of my life...September 30th, 2013
"I can hardly wait"
%d bloggers like this: