In The Palgrave Handbook of Imposter Syndrome in Higher Education, editors Michelle Addison, Maddie Breeze and Yvette Taylor bring together contributors to reflect on the crisis of imposter syndrome in higher education. The book gives fascinating insight into ‘imposterism’ and offers useful context and advice to readers looking to understand their own experiences, writes Chris Featherstone.
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The Palgrave Handbook of Imposter Syndrome in Higher Education. Michelle Addison, Maddie Breeze and Yvette Taylor (eds). Palgrave. 2022.
The Palgrave Handbook of Imposter Syndrome in Higher Education gives brilliant insight into how people experience feelings of inclusion and exclusion in higher education. Editors Michelle Addison, Maddie Breeze and Yvette Taylor have curated a collection where contributors’ reflections, research into broader experiences and arguments contextualising imposter syndrome through societal explanations are brought together in an accessible volume.
The Handbook commences with Breeze, Addison and Taylor giving crucial context to imposter syndrome as a concept. Imposter syndrome within the academy is defined as a ‘combined sense of inadequacy and inauthenticity. A conviction that one’s self is deficient and one’s work is substandard combined with a sense that entrance into and progression within HE were not earned but rather secured by deception, by luck, or via a mistake on the part of gatekeepers’. They outline the trend in many Western discussions of imposter syndrome towards these individualising experiences. The editors challenge this, situating imposter syndrome within the structures of higher education and their social and political contexts. They provide a fascinating exploration of ‘imposterism’, discussing how increased claims to feelings of exclusion can give the claimant kudos and currency for inclusion, a means to claim resources and ‘space’ within the HE context.
This crucial contextualisation is followed by Helen Hewertson and Faith Tissa’s intersectional examination of imposter syndrome and how it is experienced by those from marginalised groups. A broad range of research from a variety of national contexts is introduced, giving the reader both a conceptual explanation of how the ‘imposter phenomenon’ emerges within higher education and useful advice for those in academia. The authors argue that imposter syndrome can stem from the structures of UK higher education. The habits and culture of privileged students are both expected and rewarded, leading to less privileged or first-generation students feeling socially incompetent. Hewertson and Tissa argue that those with imposter syndrome are typically from more marginalised groups with less power. They advise that those of us within academia must interrogate and challenge cultures of power ‘and resist the false narrative of a fairly integrated and equally accessible education system’.
The Handbook gives insight into the experiences of a range of groups involved in higher education. Addison and Nathan Stephens Griffin demonstrate the impact of imposter syndrome on student experience, using in-depth interviews to inform their analysis. They argue that imposterism acts as a metaphorical ‘canary in the coalmine’, illustrating the impact of other inequalities in higher education. Based on their interviews, they argue that students perceive imposter syndrome in an individualised manner, separating it from the structural context.
In her chapter on performance reviews in UK higher education and how they can trigger feelings of imposter syndrome, Karen Lumsden gives fascinating insight into the experience of early career researchers. The chapter is based on the author’s autoethnography of the process of undertaking a ‘performance and development review’, recounting the ‘masculinist culture’ of self-promotion and continuous competition in which these reviews were conducted. Lumsden argues that universities produce a ‘double consciousness’ in academics: this separation between the university definition of a ‘good academic self’ and one’s own understanding of self can lead to imposter syndrome. The difference between the university’s understanding of a good academic as someone who is continually improving and innovating, and one’s own self-worth and personal values, is seen as a way that feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity can arise. The experiences recounted and theorised in this chapter will be familiar to many within UK higher education and will surely echo with those in other contexts.
In possibly the most unique concluding chapter I have ever read, Breeze, Addison and Taylor reiterate their challenge to overarching trends in discussions of imposter syndrome within higher education with their own take on an ‘Agony Aunt’ problem page. This is a methodology that is new to me, but reading the problem page letters and responses served as an excellent introduction and thought-provoking outline of the method and the utility of such an approach.
In these letters, the authors address a range of perspectives on imposterism and the challenges that arise as one confronts these feelings. This is a particularly accessible chapter in a book that will appeal to a wide variety of readers and gives some indication of how challenges to structural imposterism arguments can be confronted. Outlining different lines of argument for readers who are at all stages of their higher education journey is both a brilliant means to provide explanations and a practical tool.
The conclusion is insightful, entertaining and helpful for anyone within higher education. Yet, the contributions could be drawn together more, illustrating how they relate to one another to provide greater insight into the impact of imposter syndrome in academia. There could also be more variety in the methodologies presented. There are several autoethnographies here; whilst these are very interesting, a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches could help generalise some of the conclusions. The Handbook nonetheless gives fascinating insight into the concept of imposter syndrome and the range of ways in which different groups in higher education experience it, alongside practical advice for academic researchers and students.
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