"Compare the best of their days
With the worst of your days
You won't win..." -- Morrissey
I can't remember exactly when I first encountered the term "impostor syndrome", but I know I was less than ten years old at the time, and I know where I read about it: a book called The Gifted Kid's Survival Guide. I don't think it made much of a mark on me. And knowing what it was early on didn't stop me from developing it later.
This essay is about my experiences with impostor syndrome. One of the reasons why I want to talk about these experiences is that I had them while most people in the world were seeing me as female, though I'm not female. Sometimes people tell me that my experiences are un-representative (of, I guess, anyone except me), but I think they're wrong. My experiences represent those of one person who spent 26 years moving through the world while generally being perceived to be female, albeit (often) gender-non-conforming. I say this not to lay claim to any sort of female socialization, which I didn't have; or to deny that I have male privilege (and probably had some even before I knew I was male); but because if I can say something that helps people understand what cis and trans women, as well as many trans men and genderqueer people, face in trying to find a place for themselves in male-dominated spaces (which is to say, in the world), I want that message to be understood. At the same time, I'm speaking from my position as a white trans man who doesn't have visible disabilities, was raised lower-class, and has a graduate degree and works as a software engineer. I've had it harder than some people and easier than many others, if it even makes sense to compare.
Ideally, I would like to change how historically male-dominated institutions -- specifically in this essay, computer science graduate programs -- try to integrate and welcome women as full participants. While one little blog post can't change the world, it might show a few people that the situation isn't as simple as it may look, and that has ripple effects. So I'm simply going to recount my personal history as a non-traditional learner, then undergraduate, then graduate student at Berkeley, and wherever possible try to draw connections between my experiences and larger social structures. If you remember nothing else from this essay, I hope you remember that when grad programs admit more women as students, it's not enough: to do so without extra attention to structural inequalities sets these students up for failure and actually reinforces sexism. I'll elaborate on that point in the rest of this essay.
I didn't go to elementary school, middle school, or high school. That's the best way I can think of to say it; saying I was homeschooled would imply too much organization, saying I was unschooled would imply too much freedom. I got really interested in animal rights when I was ten and that started a period of a couple years where I didn't do much except read about animal rights, environmentalist, and more generally, radical and progressive politics. A little bit later than that, I got interested in doing editorial cartoons. I had some good ideas, but I couldn't really draw. In retrospect, it's surprising to me that I had no doubt that I could become a cartoonist anyway. I guess I just assumed my drawing would catch up with my writing, and I would draw pictures that would unseat a government. 14-year-old me was pretty sure that was how it was going to go. Back then, I think I was pretty confident in who I was and what I could do. If anything, too confident, but that's what teenagers are supposed to be, right?
That same year -- 1995 -- I started taking classes at U/Mass Boston, and I got access to the Internet. This meant going to a terminal room in the basement of a library to use VT-220 terminals to connect to a VAX/VMS system and use gopher, lynx, and Usenet newsreaders to read stuff online. After reading artifacts like the Nerdity Test, the archives of the Internet Oracle, and the Jargon File, I decided geeks and hackers were probably my people, but I knew that to understand what they were talking about, I would have to learn to program.
This was, by the way, not that long after I had decided that math and science were tools of the Man and definitely not me. My conclusion from the reading I'd done about radical environmentalism, as well as about opposition to experimentation on animals, had led me to decide that you could be a scientist, or you could want to save animals and the environment, but not both. So I concluded that I had no use for math or science. Like lots of kids, I didn't understand that math wasn't just about rote calculations. It didn't make much difference that I wasn't in school -- I didn't have the benefit of parents who were particularly well-versed in math. Even though as a younger kid, I'd enjoyed combinatorics and logic in the form of books like The I Hate Mathematics! Book and Math for Smarty Pants, I saw "school math" as something totally different (and not fun).
All was not lost, of course, since at the time, I didn't think of computer science as being too intertwined with math or science. Sure, it had "science" in the name, but so did political science (which was, coincidentally, what I had been planning to major in). That fall, I started taking classes at Wellesley College -- from which I would later graduate, but at that point, I was still a "high school student" (who never set foot in a high school except to register to take college classes), taking an unreliable shuttle from nearby the mixed-income building where I lived with my mom to get to the College, all the way across town. The second day of CS 111 at Wellesley, I walked in, saw the source code for a program for the first time, and never looked back. Immediately, I felt that I had found my "calling", as I would have put it when I was 14 (and, to be honest, 21). By the time the semester was over, I knew I was going to major in computer science, and I was pretty sure I was going to go to grad school too, since I wanted to know as much about it as I possibly could. It might have occurred to me at some point that since what I liked was programming, maybe I would rather become a programmer. But by the time I was in college, I'd cast off my earlier belief in unschooling and independent learning, and picked up a bit of a credentialist mentality. It's not as if I came up with the desire to accumulate credentials for their own sake, of course -- there is plenty of cultural pressure to do that. Maybe it was that school had structure, which I thought I understood; I didn't know the rules of the game for employment, and suspected it would involve talking to people in a non-scripted way. Nobody had taught me the rules; I didn't grow up with an employed parent or parents, so I didn't spend my childhood hearing people talking about their jobs like work was just a normal thing. The long and the short of it was that I had fewer options than a lot of my peers did.
In retrospect, I was right about geeks and hackers being my people. Well, sort of right. Deciding to learn how to program was the biggest step I've ever taken, as someone who was born a misfit, towards finding community. Not just community, but a steady livelihood in a world where many of my friends (with or without formal education) can't find meaningful employment. But in exchange for that sense of community, I gave up some of the political passion that I felt as a teenager. Being financially comfortable, and being constantly around people who are mostly even more financially comfortable than I am, is hard to reconcile with being aware of, much less doing something about, the many injustices that keep the few of us comfortable at the expense of many who don't have enough. On an even more basic level, working 8 hours a day plus whenever I think about it in the shower at an intellectually demanding job doesn't leave a lot of time left for public involvement. If I hadn't discovered I loved to program, I might have become a full-time activist, or run for office, or even made those world-changing cartoons I wanted to make. But it seems like I would have had to do those things with less help and support than I got because I was doing computer science.
Of course, how supportive that community has been of me has varied wildly over time, and the roughest times have been times when people thought I was a woman.
At least for a while, I didn't have impostor syndrome when it came to computer science. I liked programming, and it was something I felt I could do. At least for the first few years, it didn't occur to me often, if ever, that it was possible for me to be bad at it. I did well in most of my undergrad classes, and the computer science department at Wellesley was small and friendly. Wellesley, being a historically women's college, wasn't full of CS majors who had been programming since they were in utero. I knew exactly one person who sort of fit that description; most of the other CS majors had come to it in college or just before, like I did. I had a few rough patches: algorithms class, for example, which was the first time I encountered the intersection of formal reasoning and computer science (something I've had a stormy relationship with since then) -- and the Computation Structures class I took at MIT, which had its moments where I wondered whether I'd made a mistake by not taking two years of physics first. But for the most part, computer science classes were where I went to rebuild my confidence. And they were super fun. When I think about the best times I've ever had writing code, I think about working on an extra-credit assignment to write an Eliza bot in Pascal, on my Performa 636 in 1996, while listening to Melissa Etheridge's album "Never Enough".
But I got a shadow of what was to come when I went to Berkeley in the summer before my junior year, to participate in the SUPERB REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates). SUPERB was specifically aimed at underrepresented minorities -- my "in" was that I went to an undergrad-only institution and at the time, people (including me) thought I was female -- so there were some workshops and events meant to encourage us to go to grad school, and so on. I don't remember much about those, the explicit curriculum. The hidden curriculum had more of an effect on me. I was assigned a faculty member, who I saw about twice during the summer, and a grad student mentor. At the time, I was petrified of asking for help and, for the most part, interacting with people (with the exception of a trusted few). I rarely sought out help from the grad student; while he was perfectly friendly and helpful when I did ask him questions, for the most part, I found it more comfortable to sit in my office and fumble around trying to figure out how to program in C (a language I'd never used before, since it wasn't taught at my school) and, of course, mess around on the Internet. Most of the other students in the REU were in areas of engineering other than computer science, so it wasn't like I had other undergrads to talk to (and I would have been too shy to approach them anyway). Moreover, I never felt like I really understood the content of the project I worked on. I hadn't gotten particularly interested in programming languages at this point; while I hadn't taken a class in it, I thought I really wanted to study AI. So that's what kind of project I said I wanted to work on. That summer, I learned that AI was no longer about trying to simulate cognition, and was about statistics. I hated statistics. (Still do.) At this time in my life, I'd been through a disastrous year and a half of calculus classes and I had some serious math anxiety going on. I was also minoring in math -- go figure. Anyway, for lots of that summer I felt like I was missing something really important, like I was manipulating symbols with no real understanding. This probably wasn't so. It would have helped me to see the quote that gets attributed to John von Neumann about how you never understand things in mathematics, you just get used to them. But in any case, neither of my mentors sought me out that summer to see how I was doing, at least not very often; I suppose they probably assumed that if I needed help, I would come to them, and they didn't want to be annoying. So here's the hidden curriculum: I learned that doing research was about fumbling cluelessly alone for extended periods of time, and not talking to other people about it. This is sort of true, but I don't think it has to involve as much isolation as it actually did for me.
I don't mean to question the good intentions of the university staff members who run programs like SUPERB, often for little reward, given how devalued undergraduates at research universities like Berkeley are. But structurally, what purpose do these programs for disadvantaged undergrads serve? Is it to get a few tokens into the system so that someone can say to their boss "look, we're doing okay, we got four students of color interested in research this year" (or whatever) and everyone will be happy? Or are they meant to bring about deep, structural change? I don't know the answer. I just know that I learned more from the hidden curriculum than the explicit one.
Despite that experience, I decided at some point during my junior year that I was going to apply to grad school. I think I was hoping that grad school would be less like my experience so far with research -- that is, sitting alone in a room not knowing how to do anything (and having to understand math that felt impossible to understand) and not being able to ask for help -- and more like my experience with programming for its own sake. I know, that wasn't a particularly realistic expectation, but I had to decide between grad school and working when I'd never experienced either -- do you blame me?. I applied to 20 schools, and to my surprise, was accepted to 18 of them. (This probably would have been 19 if one school hadn't messed up my fee waiver request. I wasn't particularly inclined to go to a school that (apparently) wouldn't have me because I didn't have $1000 for all those application fees, anyway. In case you're wondering, the only one that rejected me was Stanford.) I decided to go to Berkeley because my summer there had convinced me to want to live there, that life would be amazing if I got to walk past the tie-dyed T-shirt and bumper sticker vendors on Telegraph every day and drink boba tea while riding my bike. Also, because I visited Berkeley and Cornell in the same two-week period, during which it was snowing in Ithaca and about 70 degrees in Berkeley.
It's hard for me to remember exactly why I thought I had to go to grad school. Maybe it was because my partner (I got married immediately after graduating from undergrad) was going to grad school, and I didn't want to be the only one without a graduate degree in the relationship. Maybe I thought academia would be less sexist than industry, though I soon learned that it wasn't. Maybe it was that I grew up isolated and professors were some of the only models that I had for what I could be when I grew up -- I admired some of my professors in college a lot, and wanted to be like them. And I hadn't known enough other adults with jobs to be able to envision other possibilities for me. In particular, I didn't have role models who were programmers who worked outside of academia -- and any role models I would have found at the time probably wouldn't have looked much like me.
So despite the line from "The Simpsons" about how grad students aren't bad people, they just made terrible life decisions, personally I don't feel like I had much of a choice. If I'd grown up an upper-middle-class cis boy with a big family and lots of peers who I met through school and activities, I'd have lots of people I could model myself on in deciding what to do. But having grown up isolated, the only source of inspiration for me was school, and because college had been a way better place than anywhere I'd been in childhood, it made sense that I would want to stay in school forever.
And again, if my story had been exactly the same except for me being a cis boy -- or even me being a hetero cis girl, or my brain working in ways that were more typical, or me not being an abuse survivor -- the whole thing might have worked out for me without a hitch, assuming a sizable dose of luck. Maybe I'd be a tenure-track professor by now. But everything intersected to set me up for feeling the only place I'd be welcome was actually a place where I wouldn't be welcome at all.
To be continued!