First Day Jitters and Imposter Syndrome

An updated version of a post that appeared in 2010.

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one forty-two 43 autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth 19th 20th year as a professor at PCC; this year, many of my younger students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Eight years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright; public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year; all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me; though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last 14 with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else. Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say Really? That’s how I feel too! (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt (the imposter syndrome) and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly: I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and be-BrooksBrothered and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.

UPDATE #2:

I will be teaching Women’s History this fall, and again in the spring. Though I did seriously consider dropping it from my schedule during last winter’s controversy, conversations with faculty and students on campus have changed my mind. For the foreseeable future, I will continue to offer History 25B, the college’s main intro to women’s studies course.

4 thoughts on “First Day Jitters and Imposter Syndrome

  1. First, I was born in 1994, which is after u started teaching in Pcc. Second, I’m nervous too!! Third, wish you good luck! Fourth, if we learn women’s history this fall semester, why do we still have “Sperm Counts” and “The Male Body”? Finally, I’m excited to be your student!! See you in a few hours!!! :)

  2. Hugo, are you going to address the thuggish administrative takedown of the faculty (and the quality of the college in general) at PCC on your blog? I understand if you don’t, we’ve all been intimidated into inaction, but the topic certainly needs attention…

  3. Honestly, cowed, I’m trying to get up to speed on everything that’s happened. I have no problem speaking out, but want to do so from a fully informed position.

    • Thanks for the reply, Hugo. Please do look into it. I believe that you will conclude that the current administration are thuggish authoritarians who have contempt for the faculty and for the very idea of community college as a place of higher education. I am not exaggerating.

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