Why do some academics feel like frauds?
Ruth Barcan believes such feelings are a logical response to a broken academic system
The feelings of fraudulence were neither isolated nor a symptom of purely personal anxieties but rather a systemic feature of life in the late-modern academy
On a recent train commute to work, a young man, seeing me editing some documents, asked me what work I did. I told him that I was a university lecturer. “That must be a cushy job,” he responded cheerily. Given his beaming smile, I felt that an equivocal murmur was the most appropriate response.
I was lucky that his was such a benign reaction. Academics find only tepid favour in Australia at the best of times and when the financial climate is tough, or when they dare to raise a public voice about their working conditions, they are likely to find themselves the object of public derision. As one online commentator, responding to an ABC news story about academic redundancies, sneered: “Come off it. All academics do is read, think, tap on a keyboard, blow hot air and sit on their butts. How difficult is that? Do you actually believe that qualifies as hard work? Hard work is done in the mines, in the hospital wards, on construction sites…”
This scepticism is particularly directed at academics in the arts and humanities, who are increasingly likely (in the UK, too) to find their claims that they contribute to a wider social or cultural good ridiculed in favour of a view of such subjects as private indulgences that should not be subsidised by the public purse.
In this grim context, it is foolish to expect much public sympathy when academics attempt to critically analyse the lived realities of working in the university today. And yet there are important conversations about well-being that academics need to have as a group.
One particular observation has stayed with me from my earliest days in the academy, when I began to notice that many of my colleagues (especially women) gave out subtle signs that they did not feel they were up to the job – almost as though they had been employed in error and would sooner or later be found out. My shorthand term for this phenomenon was “feelings of fraudulence”. I recognised these signs in part because I was experiencing something similar, feeling uneasily that I didn’t know “enough”, or the right things. This was quite unexpected, as I had had a highly successful passage through university and several happy years as a schoolteacher. But it was explicable, since I had made a big intellectual shift from a disciplinary formation in English and languages to a postgraduate training in cultural studies.
As the years passed and the quiet conversations with colleagues continued, I began to realise that the feelings of fraudulence were neither isolated nor a symptom of purely personal anxieties but rather a systemic feature of life in the late-modern academy. I made it a question of principle to name it as such and to subject it to the same kind of analysis as other facets of institutional life.
So it is that over the past decade, my thinking about feelings of fraudulence has transformed from a private distress to an intellectual curiosity, a pedagogic challenge and an ethical imperative. I now approach the subject quite straightforwardly, convinced of its political, ethical and human importance, especially, but not only, to postgraduates, early career academics and the ever-growing pool of academics employed casually or on short-term contracts. Nonetheless, I am aware that feelings of fraudulence are a difficult thing to admit to, or even talk about, since they are accompanied by a sense of shame and, as Elspeth Probyn, professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, notes cogently in her book Blush: Faces of Shame (2005), shame is itself shaming.
The lack of a professional language to describe a commonplace professional feeling is itself a symptom of the problem. In the highly pressurised and competitive world of the contemporary academy, it is easy to take on board the tactics of individualisation and pathologisation so beloved of university managers who tend, in general, to address problems of structural change in the language of psychology: “coping” or “not coping”; “resistant to change” and so on. It is against this individualising logic that a structural analysis of painful feelings is important. This refusal to depoliticise personal experience remains a feminist staple.