What Does the Academy Have Against Teaching?

Academic gatekeeping and overburdened instructors are a recipe for imposter syndrome at UChicago.

By Brigid Boll

Upon entering the M.A. program at the University of Chicago Divinity School last fall, before the world changed, I was met, rather inevitably, with two glaring words you become intimately acquainted with when you enter higher education: imposter syndrome. Simply put, imposter syndrome affects a person's conception of self-worth in a given context. Whether in a classroom or a boardroom, imposter syndrome leaves one feeling “less than” or “unworthy” in relation to one's peers and, more often than not, is not a projection of reality.

At first, I chalked it up to having been out of practice. My return to the academy came after two years in the supposed “real world,” working as a brand strategist and content writer. It also came after two messy breakups—one with a boyfriend and another with a job that showed me just how much I valued education and missed it. Beyond the academy being a place where life can feel structured, it is a place whose values I deeply believed in: knowledge for the sake of knowledge and education as a building block of upstanding citizens. The first few weeks of classes I sat in various desks, relearning how to take notes and read academic material for the first time in years. I met other students, some of whom had just come out of undergrad and others who had just left 10-plus-year careers. I began to see that, in a very real way, the academy was a refuge for those who deeply believe in the power and importance of knowledge. However, that passion for learning is not always met with simple or direct answers; rather, I have continually found quite the opposite. Simply put: Want for knowledge does not inherently grant access to knowledge. The academy and the pedagogy it supports must allow for the lack of knowledge students arrive with.

After weeks of writing off my new-found imposter syndrome as “newness,” the incipience of my graduate experience began to fade—but the imposter within me didn’t. Humiliated, I would write down words like “epistemology” and “neoliberalism” in my notebook. Should I have known these words before I arrived? Did my undergraduate institution fail to prepare me for further academic life, or had I been too oblivious to bother to learn? Foucault, Marx, and Derrida became names I knew but didn’t know. The weight of their work was ever present in my classrooms, along with all the books I hadn't read, words I didn’t know, and the scholar I would never be.

While I often felt isolated in my confusion, I was not alone in this overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. I witnessed more than one student in my program unable to cope with the stress of the academy: theorists not read, words left undefined, and ultimately the belief that they were the reason for the definitional absence. Sometimes, this resulted in students choosing not to return for another year of study.

I was often left flailing, seeking out any professor who would take the time to talk with me about my work and my ideas, often turned away and told to “just read more.” Were it not for my father, an actor, who taught me how to be rejected a thousand times over and persevere nonetheless, I might have thrown in the towel by now. But this isn’t Los Angeles. We should not, as students, be tossed aside by professors too busy with their own research to take the time to teach. Moreover, universities should not place such a burden on professors to teach, research, and write monographs all at once. A thirst for knowledge does not maintain a predisposition for knowledge acquisition, that is at the behest of the institutions themselves.

To be in the academy, as far as I was concerned before returning, was to be in the pursuit of knowledge, of understanding, of trying to get at that thing we couldn’t shake, the reasons for how we act and why we act. But the humanities, unlike the world of science and math, have no prerequisites. I was accepted to UChicago as a religious-studies graduate student with a degree in religious studies and theater. I had never taken a theory-and-methods course, and names of the supposed “canon” cropped up seemingly out of nowhere in my classes. Posturing was a language I learned quickly. Texts unheard of and words undefined came and went without so much as a hand raised to ask, “Can you define that term?” or “I’ve never read that text, can we stick to today’s readings?” often because I was scared of looking dumb.

It is that example that explicates this pedagogical lack. While students deserve truth about states of fields and canon, they also deserve access to those modes of thinking that do not come at the expense of their own sense of worth. Students deserve access to knowledge precisely because they have endeavored to learn it. Blatantly put, I should not find myself on dictionary.com in the middle of a lecture because I am too scared to raise my hand and ask about complex Marxist theory. I by no means wish to diminish the importance of theory, nor the language of humanities scholarship, but it is important to recognize how many potential scholars may be lost in their turns of phrase.

I, of course, am not blind to my own linguistic disposition. This language of academia has rooted itself within me, as well. It is a language I did not know how to speak just a few months ago, one I remain troubled by. Is this not proof of some failure on the part of the academy, that it is a space in which students feel they are unable to ask questions to learn?

As we sit in this new moment, one of uncertainty and liminality, between what is past and what is yet to come, we might consider what kind of institutions we want to both create and be a part of. Knowledge is as knowledge is maintained, and we as its maintainers owe access to those who want access to it. Why censor? Why diminish access? So that we, as scholars, can feel with each passing “epistemic” flourishing utterance that we have mounted another field of theory?

I am not suggesting that we speak in childish terms. I am not suggesting scholarship in the humanities is somehow unworthy because of its inaccessible language. What I am saying is that students deserve pedagogy that does not leave them mired in confusion and self-doubt. Professors deserve to feel they have the time to work with and properly instruct students. Institutions, ivory tower or not, owe us more. I am tired of being scared to raise my hand.

Brigid Boll is a student in the Divinity School.