We Are All Imposters: Scam Culture, Victorian Conmen, and the Confidence Game in Academia
In her article “Imposter Syndrome as Public Feeling,” Maddie Breeze explores imposter syndrome in the academy as a kind of paralysis: neither fight nor flight, the “imposter” freezes, frightened of being caught out. Breeze argues that this fear of being an imposter, and the freeze that follows, is “an important aspect of the affective landscape of feminist academic work, especially when this work takes place in neoliberal universities” (191). As such, she encourages feminist academics to stop framing imposter syndrome as an individual experience to be coped with, but rather as public feeling, particularly considering the uneven and intersectionally relevant ways in which such feelings are experienced:
While feelings of imposter syndrome are commonly understood as widespread among academics, it does not follow that these are felt equally or that the affect carries the same meaning across discipline, career stage, contract type, and intersections of class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and factors such as caring responsibilities or first generation in higher education (HE) status. (Breeze 192)
By examining the affective element of imposter syndrome in the academy, she hopes to discover “what happens if we think of affective regimes of fraudulence, inauthenticity, inadequacy, and the paralyzing fear of ‘getting found out’, as social, political, and public” (192). One contributing factor, according to Breeze, lies in the fact that “part of the ‘game’ of neoliberal academic work is being called to perform (in job applications, interviews, funding bids, lectures, staff meetings, student supervision meeting, conference presentations, etc.) high levels of confidence, competence, and even entitlement that are not necessarily or always felt in a singular, straightforward, or unequivocal way” (210). Tellingly, Breeze concludes: “I wonder if academics often perform professional confidence to a degree that is not necessarily convincing to the self that is doing the performance” (210).
Little wonder if the self remains unconvinced by the performance. Confidence in academia is a privileged attribute--arising, yes, as a result of time, talent, hard work, and the accumulation of institutional affirmation, but also significantly influenced by the many identity factors listed by Breeze, which often manifest in ways that are difficult at first glance to track. For example, scholars and faculty from traditionally marginalized or underrepresented communities are disproportionately unlikely to attain tenure. Taking into consideration racial identity alone, the barriers are considerable, various, and often murky. According to a 2016 study, “Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity,” although some gains have been made in the last twenty years to “[evolve] from a largely white male enclave to an increasingly diverse workforce, . . . the actual number of underrepresented minorities in tenured and tenure-track positions remains small”; most steps toward diversity have been made in part-time and nontenure-track positions. Even when faculty positions are available, tenure can be difficult to obtain for a variety of reasons. Disciplines such as Women’s and Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies are often interdisciplinary, which requires scholars in these fields to specialize in and apply a variety of academic discourses within a few short years’ times in order to meet high publication demands. Faculty of color are often expected to perform “invisible labor”: labor which Patricia A. Matthew, writing in the Atlantic, defines as “[serving] as mentors, inspirations, and guides—to be the racial conscience of their institutions while not ruffling too many of the wrong feathers,” which can be distracting, fatiguing, and which is naturally not expected of such scholars’ white counterparts. Some personal anecdotal evidence: When I wanted to study postcolonial Indian literature in my master’s institution, I was told that there had been a scholar there recently whose work really fit the bill, but who was likely to leave, having just been denied tenure. Later, when I wanted to study postcolonial Indian literature in my PhD institution, I was told the same story. Different female scholar of color, different school, same result.
What, then, does confidence mean in the academy? Which constituent elements of the academy have the privilege of being convinced by their own performances of confidence? As a doctoral candidate who is edging near the belly-flop of the academic job market, I consistently receive signals from my faculty mentors that I am a member of a bottlenecking population: each of us is in the place we have been instructed we must occupy in order to attain a tenure-track academic job, yet the only message we receive is the same one Dante reads on the gates of Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Furthermore, the shifting landscape of the academic job market--spurred by increasingly prevalent anti-intellectual government initiatives and the neoliberal corporatization of the academy--virtually guarantees that the more established of our faculty mentors are the least equipped to advise us as to the specifics of approaching the current job market, as their own job market experiences, woes, and challenges grow less and less relevant to those we face.
It occurs to me that the fears fueling imposter syndrome arise out of a larger context, as well: the near-mythic figure of the confidence trickster, which is certainly one of the most significant of our contemporary cultural preoccupations. Within the academy and outside of it, we are in something of a Golden Age of Scammers. Media narratives swarm and settle on figures such as Jussie Smollett, Dan Mallory, the organizers of the Fyre Festival, and men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and the other central figures whose hidden natures have been brought to light by the #MeToo movement. All of this constitutes a large portion of our cultural prepossessions within recent years, and this is not even to mention the vast and ever-growing body of insinuations regarding dirty dealings and treasonous untruths that have long been accumulating into a prevailing portrait of a scammer’s administration underneath a Conman-in-Chief. More recently, even since I began researching for this article, a college admissions scandal has implicated the values system of higher education, these stories of illegal tricks used by those criminals caught in the act serving, for many of us in academia, to highlight the completely legal, sanctioned ways (such as legacy admissions and donations toward institutional advancement, language that intentionally obscures racial elitism and bribery) in which economic and racial privilege have always undercut the myth of intellectual meritocracy.
This is not the first golden age of its kind. As a scholar of nineteenth-century studies, I am inclined to read our current moment alongside the rise of the confidence man in the context of the rapid industrialization, urbanization, and attendant volatile social change of the mid-nineteenth century. In his paper “Dr. Smiles and the ‘Counterfeit’ Gentlemen: Self-Making and Misapplication in Mid-Nineteenth Century Britain,” Daniel Matlock points to the emergent middle class as a space for self-making, while also gesturing to the potential difficulties between distinguishing self-making from counterfeiting. He troubles this space by introducing readers to two characters: One, Edward Agar, the career criminal responsible for “the Great Bullion Robbery” of 1855, and one whose criminal machinations were hidden from view under a veneer of middle-class respectability, read through his personal dress and appearance, mannered performance, and the hiding of his criminal activity within a respectable Victorian house in a respectable Victorian neighborhood; and the second, Samuel Smiles, whose 1859 book Self-Help attempted to distinguish how curious readers might legitimately improve themselves by improving these same elements of respectability. The very basis of Self-Help arises from a singular irony: before his career as a writer began, Smiles was himself the secretary responsible for the safe passage of the bullion which Agar robbed, meaning that Smiles--whose book not only widely popularized a term central to the middle-class culture of self-making but also birthed a genre of similar texts designed to legitimate the process of attaining middle-class wealth and respectability--was personally, disastrously duped by Agar’s counterfeit performance.
Such an irony inevitably begs the question: If self-making is by nature a performance, what makes this performance legitimate, and what makes this performance counterfeit? For Smiles, the vague answer is “character” (Matlock 84), which he links with the equally slippery concept of consistency, but other writers of the time perhaps more helpfully viewed the distinction simply as one of scale. Jean Braucher and Barak Orbach, in their article “Scamming: The Misunderstood Confidence Man,” point toward a series of pieces published in the New York Herald in 1849, “four unsigned short reports about the arrest of a swindler, purportedly known as the ‘Confidence Man,’” a man named Samuel Thompson who “used a highly distilled version of an old trick: he expressly asked his victims to place confidence in him by lending him money or a watch” (Braucher and Orbach 251), which he then stole. These initial reports on Thompson are frequently credited for coining the now-ubiquitous term (251). These four reports ran in the Herald between July 8 and July 14 of 1849; on July 11, in the midst of this unfolding story, “the Herald also published a provocative editorial [entitled ‘“The Confidence Man” on a Large Scale’] about the Confidence Man, comparing him to the ‘real’ (or ‘true’) confidence men--Wall Street ‘financiers’” (251). From the inception of the term, therefore, there has been an awareness that confidence games are everywhere, that legitimacy of character (like the meritocracy of college admissions) is a myth, and that societal positioning imbues the performance of confidence with a privileged degree of power and protection. The story of the scammer, both in the nineteenth century and today, therefore (appropriately) wears two faces: that of the scammer caught and castigated, and that of the scammer ascendant, empowered. The moral tale becomes difficult to navigate.
In the context of academia, this means that we are all hyper-aware of the confidence culture that surrounds us, which causes many of us to become uncomfortably aware of the circumstances in which our performance of confidence fails to convince ourselves. Or maybe I shouldn’t be speaking for other people. After all, there’s plenty of anecdotal material relating to my own experiences: When I first began teaching as a graduate TA, I was twenty-three years old, only a year older than the most senior student in my class. I was not only young, but baby-faced and undersized. Students looked at one another in disbelief when I walked to the front of the classroom on the first day, even outfitted as I was with a herringbone blazer and ratty briefcase, totems which failed to instill in me the confidence I hoped they would provide. Having myself tested out of my required composition courses as an undergraduate, I was being asked to teach a class in a subject I had never once taken, and my training--such as it was--had been brief, and had engaged far more with heady theoretical concepts written in discourses to which I did not yet have access than with brass-tacks, how-to-fill-time-in-the-classroom pragmatics. I felt, in that moment, like the textbook imposter, permitted to stand where I stood merely by some oversight of the admissions process.
Let me continue to speak for myself, and hope that others find something of their own experience in mine: I was never comfortable in the classroom, not until I (very gradually) grew adjusted to the theoretical discourse of feminist pedagogy, which encouraged me to decenter power and authority in the classroom and therefore reduce my own (unconvincing) performance of confidence. Under such a pedagogical approach, I could instead be merely competent--as, indeed, I was--and could use my own curiosities, uncertainties, and vulnerabilities to dismantle the problematic top-down power structures that so often poison the classroom, making our students feel like they are imposters, too. Neither was I comfortable with the constant barrage of rejection involved in sending out my scholarly and creative work, not until a trusted mentor encouraged another act of subversion by assigning me to collect a certain number of rejections (“Fifty by Spring Break, Rachel,” she told me) rather than scramble and plead and pray for publications. In her argument for considering imposter syndrome as a public feeling, Maddie Breeze points toward counteracting imposter syndrome by exposing the vulnerability, rejection, and failure that comes along with success and that undercuts the performance of confidence. One such act of exposure is Melanie Stefan’s concept of a “CV of Failures,” listing the degrees, jobs, publications, funds, and other such opportunities prominent scholars have tried and failed to receive. Feminist pedagogy and rejection-gathering are two other such tools. There is vulnerability even in going on the record about one’s own experience of imposter syndrome: what fool would remove her own mask in a sea of masked faces? In a scammer’s world, what else can be done to render public and visible the pernicious affective and professional consequences of imposter syndrome, which is so prevalent and yet also so frequently experienced in isolation?
Braucher, Jean and Barak Orbach. “Scamming: The Misunderstood Confidence Man.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249 - 290.
Breeze, Maddie. “Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling.” Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University: Feminist Flights, Fights, and Failures, edited by Yvette Taylor and Kinneret Lahad, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Finkelstein, Martin et al. “Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity.” TIAA Institute. April 2016.
Matlock, Daniel. “Dr. Smiles And The ‘Counterfeit’ Gentlemen: Self-Making And Misapplication In Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 46, no. 01, 2018, pp. 83–94.
Matthew, Patricia A. “What Is Faculty Diversity Worth to a University?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 Nov. 2016.
Stefan, Melanie. “A CV of Failures.” Nature, vol. 468, no. 7322, 2010, pp. 467–467.
Zimmer, Ben. “A 'Meritocracy' Is Not What You Think It Is.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 Mar. 2019.