Kevin Lyon

Imposter Syndrome, Creation and Negotiation of Identity, and Freshman Fear of Failing

“What if they find out who I really am?”

Every quarter, I meet a new group of (mostly) freshmen students in my First Year Writing courses, and every quarter, there’s one conversation I can’t wait to have. I always make sure that we have a discussion of “Discourse Communities” and what it means to become a “professional” within any of the fields the students might be studying.

This is often my attempt at helping students understand the metacognitive focus of a writing class. As I tell my students, in whatever domain they happen to be working toward, “I can’t teach you how to write, but I can teach you to learn how to write.”   This also leads us into an interesting discussion of the concept of “Imposter Syndrome,” which is often described in a number of ways, but mostly revolves around a person’s fear that their past successes and current situation is the result of some massive fluke or just simply luck—that their abilities don’t measure up to the requirements or expectations of the current situation, whether that be a job, a social situation, or a college classroom. This leads to feelings of inadequacy, or a fear of being “found out” that causes them to lay low throughout and not aspire to improve or advance.

This is an important discussion to have, since this fear is often held by many of the students in my other courses as well (with mostly freshmen, they are still adjusting to university life).

Another way of describing this concept might be the “freshman fear of failure” (a concept I borrowed from Bridget’s discussion of a David Kirp article). In my most recent course, we had a discussion of the imposter syndrome, with many students admitting they often feel that they aren’t really cut out for the classes they’re taking, or feel inadequately prepared for the situations they find themselves in. For some of them, it could be an actual gap in skills making them feel this way, but for many (if not most), it really stems from a fear of failure. In another sense, it is because they never learned how to fail, or worse, were never given the environment to “fail properly”.

I often use this conversation as a way of tapping into core skills like revision and reflection, as well as a few of the readings I assign in my courses, which provide additional skills or approaches to overcoming the imposter syndrome/fear of failure.

James Paul Gee‘s chapter “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: An Introduction” discusses the concept of Discourse communities as “a sort of ’identity kit’, which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize.” In essence, he says that all education and learning is just an apprenticeship in identity based on a specific discipline.

Having a stronger control over this identity—when and where we use it, how successfully we can identify with others of the same discourse, and our control of the language, gestures, and conclusions of the group—is simply a matter of familiarity and practice. It is a sort of negotiation of the appropriate markers of identity, language, and practice. Put another way, it is trial and error—the willingness to attempt something new or out of our comfort zone, and a willingness to fail at that task coupled with a desire to adjust and attempt again. This willingness to fail and try again leads to a growth mindset, to internalizing norms and expectations of the Discourse community; it leads to truly learning.

The students that tend to do best in the course, counter-intuitively, are often some the ones most worried about failing or about being found out an “imposter.” The reason, I’ve concluded, is because they are often the most willing to try on the new identity kit and make it work (since they may also see it as their only chance to make it through without being found as an imposter), to actually internalize the skills or steps we practice through our lessons. These are the students who fail gracefully, taking the feedback and revising or reflecting on choices and outcomes, and adjusting their approach or identity to better fit the situations they find themselves in. Of course, there are still some whose fear of failure puts them in a frozen state as well, refusing to try anything more than what they’ve always done, since it is a known quantity to them.

Many of the Computer Science faculty I work with would describe this as the “fail early and fail often” mantra, a way of adjusting their approach and trying again, refining the identity markers and efficiency of the approach as they use it more often. This familiarity eventually becomes second nature, internalizing the “identity kit” and transforming the student into the “professional” we discuss early on in the quarter.

As I design my courses, and as I work with instructors designing new courses, I often push for space for revision, refinement, and dare I say it—failure. Learning to fail, adjust, and re-attempt is a crucial aspect of learning. It builds resilience, and a wealth of experience to draw from when approaching new situations. Having this discussion early on in the quarter with students is crucial as well, since it sets up the permission, even the expectation, that failure is normal, so long as they are willing to reflect on what didn’t work, adjust/revise it, and try again.

Kevin Lyon

About Kevin Lyon

Kevin is a Double-Demon, receiving his Bachelor's degree in English with a minor in Professional Writing from DePaul in 2009, and staying on for his Master's in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse with dual concentrations in Technical and Professional Writing and Teaching Writing and Language. He is an now an Instructional Technology Consutlant and a Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse instructor. His research interests include technology in education, education and identity formation/negotiation, and online learning and interaction.

Leave a Reply