ConclusionsAt this point, I know someone will ask: "what could computer science departments do differently?" Well, more involved advising and mentoring would be a great start! That is, it isn't enough for an advisor to just say "come by if there's anything you need", because if you have impostor syndrome, you may not know what you need and you certainly won't want to admit that you need help. What if departments expected advisors to be ready to support all grad students, not just the ones who look exactly like themselves? This isn't to say that every faculty member can or should try to be an expert on every identity, but knowing what they do and don't know would be a start. Any outright acknowledgment of impostor syndrome would be a great start too. At Berkeley, there was nobody who stood up and said that most of the time when people look like they know what they're doing, they don't. I'm not sure I would have believed it even if they'd said it. Oh, sure, other people might be fumbling, but not as fumbling as me. We did have a required class on teaching techniques at Berkeley, since all grad students were required to TA for at least one semester -- in my head, I called the class "Geek Support Group", but it was actually really helpful because it was one time during the day when we got to put aside the pretense that we were all rational beings made of pure logic. So maybe a required class on how to be a grad student would have been helpful (required because I suspect the very people who needed it the most would have brushed it off if it was optional.)
Encouraging socialization in a way that includes everyone would also be helpful. Of course, most departments already have social events. In my department at Berkeley, when I was there, the CS grad students' group organized a weekly reception. However, faculty members rarely attended; the professor who I saw there most frequently seemed to stay just long enough to snag some free food. I was part of the CS grad students' group at Portland State, and over time, students stopped attending our events, even when we offered free food; it's not clear why. In contrast, in my ex-partner's department at Berkeley -- mathematics -- the department had a tea/coffee hour every afternoon, which a department assistant organized (the job wasn't pushed onto students) and was very well-attended by both students and faculty. Just having social events is not a be-all and end-all, since some students won't feel comfortable in large groups and some people always get left out, but it's a start. Of course, offering free food can help, and provides an excuse to go for someone who is reluctant to socialize.
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Self-DeportationWhen a department admits students from "minority groups" but doesn't do anything to address impostor syndrome, how different is that from categorically rejecting everyone who isn't a het cis able-bodied white man from an middle- to upper-class background? This way, the administration gets to boost their diversity numbers and gets plausible deniability when those students (as it were) "self-deport". "We tried to admit women and students of color, but they just didn't like it here! They must just not be interested in science." As if interests are developed in social isolation and don't depend on a network of social support telling you -- implicitly, usually -- that you belong. It's not as if everyone who's in a minority group experiences impostor syndrome, but the experience of someone who gets treated like they belong and someone who doesn't is so different that I don't think it's too strong to say "you might as well just reject everyone". I also don't mean to say that diversity decisions always get made in bad faith, but I've had some personal experiences that make it difficult for me to believe that there is any genuine institutional commitment to diversity at the universities I've attended.
In my experience, it seems that being told you're welcome and that you belong is sort of like water if you're a fish: when you have it, you don't notice it. It's only when these things are absent that you do notice. I blamed myself for their absence, because that's what I've always been taught to do. I attributed my failure at Berkeley to my own incompetence, and it didn't occur to me until years later to think about how my environment contributed to my failure to thrive there. I got ignored. The other grad students in my group and cohort socialized with each other; I just got left out. Since I was being perceived as female at the time, I think this had something to do with the fact that I was perceived as not a peer (because I wasn't male) and not sexually available (since I was married) -- therefore, to most of my fellow students, I was useless.
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Berkeley 2001-2003"it's cool to discover someone
it's hard to support them
everyone is playing life
like it's some stupid sport"
-- Ani DiFranco
As for most new Ph.D students in the US, my first year at Berkeley consisted mostly of coursework, and that was what I was used to, so for the most part it went smoothly. At the end of the year, it should have been a warning sign when nobody wanted to be my advisor. One professor I talked to -- the one I'd mentioned in my statement of purpose as who I wanted to work with, and who encouraged me to come to Berkeley when I visited during prospective student day -- said "no" outright, saying he wasn't interested in what I wanted to study (functional programming languages). Another one didn't say no, but had a reputation of being someone who didn't answer email; I was hoping for someone who actually seemed interested in having a student. I ruled out two more professors who seemed close to retirement, and one more because she did scientific computing and that pushed my "I went to a liberal arts school and don't know anything" buttons too much. I ended up with an advisor who told me he was willing to advise me, but given what I was interested in doing, he wasn't going to be very involved and he would basically just be there to sign paperwork. At the time, I thought that was fine. Remember, I didn't like talking to people. I thought I would just work on my own, and that would be easy. Easier than getting up the courage to talk to somebody, anyway.
Later on, I saw it as a personal mistake to have chosen this advisor rather than looking harder for a more involved advisor, or even changing research areas. But part of why I made that decision was structural. I was socially shut out, as I'll discuss, which meant that I wasn't getting any tacit knowledge that would have helped me understand that I did need an advisor who was involved. I know this is a structural factor and not a personal issue because Barbara Lovitts talks about it in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower. That is, she discovered that a major component of grad students' success or failure is the extent to which they can use informal social networks to attain the tacit knowledge that's essential to completing almost any graduate program; faculty and staff rarely communicate this knowledge to students in any systematic way. Official lists of graduation requirements stick to course requirements and the specifications for what constitutes a dissertation -- they don't talk about the unofficial things, like having an advisor you can work with (and who has time for you) and which advisors are likely to be compatible with which kinds of people. Thus, people who find themselves misfits and outsiders in the (figurative) lunchroom in any particular department tend to get pushed out, even if they're just as able as the insiders to complete the academic requirements.
So here's where my impostor syndrome really began. ( Read more... )
"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.
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"Why. WHY does this ALWAYS happen in CS courses??
In college my data structures professor used pictures of the following to examplify members of the class "Object", over and over again throughout the course:
A Lamborghini Diablo
A mug full of beer
A flat screen TV
(By the way, when I was majoring in computer science at a historically women's college? None of my professors used such examples. Just sayin'.)
"...ML is a functional programming language, used mainly for mathematical algorithms and such like."
(Undergrads trying to understand programming languages are like dogs trying to understand quantum mechanics.)
Does anyone have a baby I can borrow?
"That's some mighty fine left brain thinking there( especially for a Monday morning ), but does it in anyway affect any practical aspect of Perl? Like can it be used to show that Perl is more or less reliable/secure? This isn't a criticism of your node, but I left college 35 years ago, and this sort of analysis seems very ivory-tower-ish to me now. It's sort of like saying 'one cannot prove self-existence'. Is the fact that Perl cannot parse itself a good or bad thing, or can other languages do it? Does that make them superior?"
Computer science is an intellectual and pragmatic failure. Kids, if you're looking for a good career, major in English.