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Feeling dumb, "out of practice" and overwhelmed.


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I made it into my dream program, at one of the top universities in the world. I should be grateful, and, well, I AM grateful, but I also feel completely and hopelessly lost here. This is an interdisciplinary program, and I came from a strictly English lit background which (I'm coming to realize) was extraordinarily light on theory. I mainly dealt with feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory, but they always seemed second nature to me and theory was never a lens I consciously applied to anything I studied. That's how out of touch with theory I am, not to mention all the sociology and psychology and media/film studies stuff we're covering. The (lovely) people in my cohort effortlessly talk about Foucault like he's their BFF, and I have to stifle a panic attack.

We're only a couple weeks in, but it's been two years since I got my BA, and the best way I can describe how I feel is "out of practice" or "out of shape." Everyone in my cohort understands and communicates complicated ideas so deftly, while I struggle to put two words together. I used to have ideas and observations out the wazoo, to the point where I actively had to contain myself in class to avoid becoming one of those obnoxious jerks that completely monopolizes class discussion. Now I dread (and am often incapable of) having to come up with something, anything to say in lecture so the professor will see me as participating.

I totally get that there's such a thing as imposter syndrome, and I have had that for a long time, even back in undergrad. But this seems bigger than that. I keep waiting for everything to click, for me to remember why I'm here, and it's been slow going.

Will this go away? I am dedicated and determined, even if I'm no longer passionate and confident, and hope that it's just a matter of adjustment and building up those parts of my brain that atrophied during my 2 year hiatus doing jack sh*t all day. Has anyone else experienced this? Have you got any advice in the meantime? I know I'm not dumb, and that they accepted me for a reason... I just hope to god I figure out what that reason is soon!

Edited by Hellohello4
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I did my MA in an interdisciplinary program, so I can tell you this: most of the people in your program probably come from a discipline, and perhaps the classes you have now align more closely with their previous areas, but at some point you will cover material that is in your area, and they will be lost and you will feel so happy.  The beautiful thing about interdisciplinary studies is that you can draw on your own background and it is pretty much always appropriate (ex: someone is applying Foucauldian theory to x?  Great, but have they consider applying Y lens that you often use?  Let's discuss how the two differ.)

Also, you're probably less behind than you think you are: if you're familiar with queer theory I'm sure you've read Butler, and she's a Foucauldian!  Or she was, anyhow, I haven't read her recent stuff.  

On a personal note, I don't have a head for names/details/rattling off theory- like you, I prefer to apply or 'do it naturally'.  I could never say "Scholar X's seminal work titled A, and their more recent work titled B, suggests this verbatim..." because frankly I don't remember things that way.  In my MA I also had fellow students rattling off theorists, names of texts, etc., and I felt so behind all semester, until I got back my final papers in classes and outperformed most of them: just because you can recite what another person said doesn't mean you can apply it, or do anything interesting on your own.  Something to think about! 

But if you feel behind on theory, do a crash course: note down the names of scholars you hear a lot about, then wikipedia their theories, pick up a reader, etc. (Rabinow's reader is a really good interest in Foucault, if you're interested).  I'd also recommend starting discussion if you're having trouble jumping in to the middle.  Write down 3-4 discussion points about every article you read for class, and bring them up.  For example, "this week I noticed that the author argues this, which contradicts the theory we read last week that argued blah.  Here are my thoughts."  If you prepare ahead of time you'll be less nervous, and perhaps someone else will bring up the same point and you can contribute what you've already written down.  

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Also just posting in solidarity...I just posted something similar in a thread in "The Bank" about students from low-income backgrounds, which may or may not apply to you, but certainly applies to me. Thread is below.

I made a similar jump, from a well-regarded but low ranked state school for my MA, into the top 15 for my field, and top 3 for my sub-field. I figure I have a similar breakdown, 15% imposter, 85% just really not used to this. I don't have any easy answers, but I will say I have worked on accepting the fact that my in-class contributions will not necessarily be an accurate reflection of my intellectual capabilities, at least in part because I am simply not good at thinking on my feet. It has helped increase my participation a bit, has not helped feeling out of place, but I guess being an active part of the conversation is the point.

 

 

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3 hours ago, Pink Fuzzy Bunny said:

I'm going to agree with you. I made a huge jump, going from a university that's ranked >250th to one that's ranked in the top 5. My problem is 15% impostor syndrome, and 85% being severely underprepared. I'm with you... I hope it gets better for both of us.

Goodness, what would I do without this board?  I've spent the last 2 weeks in a daze not quite sure why I seemed so lost compared to my classmates and this might be it.  On the one hand I know I'm not stupid, I worked really hard to get this far, and I did what I could to supplement gaps in knowledge before starting and yet I still seem to be several pages behind.  

For example....It takes me longer to analyze theories and formulate opinions on them.  That means I participate less in class because by the time everyone has shared these amazing insights I've only just figured out what the theory was even saying.  Then I finally have a few insightful thoughts and my classmates have beaten me to the punch on every one.  It'll take me just as long to come up with a rebuttal so I just keep quiet and listen.  

And another example.....Every math class I had before hammered to death that why something is done doesn't matter and what something means isn't important, just follow the steps and shut up (a part of me wonders how much gender plays a role here).  So that youthful curiosity I used to possess was brutally murdered a long time ago and I don't think its coming back.  It didn't help that I entered the working world in my not as math dependent field and saw how frequently math isn't done because there are computers programmed to do things for you or the math is contracted out to whatever mathematical expert is necessary.  So now I'm sitting in class being told just knowing the steps is not enough to pass and all the lectures on the meanings and the whys are these ridiculously lengthy blubberings.

Get better?  I don't know, right now I'll settle for not failing my first round of exams.  And sure I have different strengths compared to my classmates, but what good are they if there's nowhere to demonstrate them? 

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People are admitted to PhD programs from all over the world. Naturally, they will come with different levels of preparation and some gaps in knowledge in some subfields. This is entirely expected. You seem to have discovered that part of your field that you have less training in, and perhaps this is one where the majority of your cohort happens to have a strength in. That is a bit unfortunate, but at the end of the day it's to be expected for someone in some subfield. First-year classes are offered precisely in order to bring everyone up to speed and make sure that they share some common terminology, set of beliefs and/or facts, and a language to talk about them. As an instructor, it can be a delicate balance if you have a class where the majority of students come with more background and are pulling ahead, but you also have some students with less background who will need to catch up quickly. Not everyone is equally good at handling that, it's actually a really hard challenge. That said, your instructor will have probably noticed that you are one of those students who came in with less background and therefore s/he should expect that it may take you longer to catch up, especially if the class has mostly students with more background. So, I wouldn't worry about how you come across just yet, it's really early in the semester. 

I think that one very good thing to do is to meet with the instructor, be up front about feeling like you're behind, and do two things: first, get the instructor's opinion as to whether that's actually true (students can be so so wrong about that sometimes), and second, get some extra help if you are. You might need to ask for additional readings, or meet with the TA, or work with other students, or whatever it is that works for you, and spend extra time on this particular class. Knowing to ask for help and what the resources are is half the battle. Then it's a matter of working hard. Trust me, by the end of the semester you might have worked harder than some of the others, but you will have closed the gap between you and them. It's pretty amazing what you can do in one semester of a good graduate course, compared to even several years of undergrad courses.

And rest assured that there will most definitely be some other area where you are strong and they are weaker. And rest even more assured (!) that everyone is insecure, whether they admit it or not, and everyone is comparing themselves to everyone else and thinking that they are the only ones who can't keep up or shouldn't be there. There is a reason your program accepted you, and that is that they think you are a good fit and can succeed there. I would accept that as a given and not doubt it, even if you can't see it now. They are the ones with the experience and they know what they are doing. 

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On 9/18/2016 at 9:02 AM, Beals said:

 then wikipedia their theories, pick up a reader, etc. 

Beals's post is fantastic but in the strongest possible terms, I recommend against using wikipedia entries for information. If you 'reverse engineer' entries entry for source materials that you will subsequently read/study, that's one thing. Relying on a summary that is not peer reviewed is another thing. (Also, if a professor finds out that you're using an encyclopedia aimed at a general audience, you may end up being her chew toy. Established scholars have developed their knowledge a certain way and many expect graduate students to walk the same journey--you will get a full dose of this sensibility when you're taking your doctoral qualifying exams and professors openly take pleasure in your suffering.)

IRT "catching up,"

  • Use JSTOR to find journals that have devoted all or part of an issue to a specific theorist/theory. 
  • Find published collections of essays that center around a specific theorist/theory. (The Cambridge Companions series and the Oxford Handbooks are two examples.)
  • Find interviews given of a particular theorist.
  • Find reviews of seminal works. Featured reviews are better than short reviews, but multiple short reviews will provide different vantage points. 
  • Find works by academics (both established and up and coming) who rely heavily upon a theory and read their works.

If you use any of the recommendations above, please consider the following.

  1. Be patient with yourself. You're grappling with complex theories that are communicated through difficult prose. If it takes you hours to read an essay, you're probably doing it right.
  2. If you get the sudden urge to take a nap, take a nap. Short naps are part of the learning process. (If you end up sleeping twelve hours a day, that's something else.)
  3. Practice writing summaries of different theories. A page, a paragraph, a sentence. (This is in addition to the suggestion to write bullet points.) Do the writing in the same medium as you will take your qualifying exams.
  4. Do not panic if, after reading oodles of articles, a book or two, and theoretical works that leave you pulling out your hair, you end up with a thumbnail sketch.
  5. Have fun.

 

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17 hours ago, Sigaba said:

Beals's post is fantastic but in the strongest possible terms, I recommend against using wikipedia entries for information. If you 'reverse engineer' entries entry for source materials that you will subsequently read/study, that's one thing. Relying on a summary that is not peer reviewed is another thing. (Also, if a professor finds out that you're using an encyclopedia aimed at a general audience, you may end up being her chew toy. Established scholars have developed their knowledge a certain way and many expect graduate students to walk the same journey--you will get a full dose of this sensibility when you're taking your doctoral qualifying exams and professors openly take pleasure in your suffering.)

First of all, thank you for the compliment :)

Second, I suppose I should have clarified, but I don't recommend relying on wikipedia for all of the information, I meant more of a starting point.  If someone references X theorist I've never even heard of, I like to jaunt over to wikipedia to quickly find information such as when and where they're writing from, what school of thought they fall in to, see a list of most notable works or names of theories, and once I've oriented myself a little, I now know where to start with the real research.  Personally, I find a crash course like this useful (and that way even if I don't have time for actual research, if I now know theorist X is a French post-structuralist, I can at least guess what they think and I'm a bit less lost next time someone brings them up in class).  

But yes, I certainly don't advocate reading wikipedia in an attempt to, say, understand Lacan's death drive- more to use wikipedia to find out that the death drive is something that has been written about and that I need to familiarize myself with, and then turn to academic sources to do the real work.  

You seem to have very well developed research strategies, Sigaba: do you recommend against even this?   I'm a lowly MA who's been out of school for 2 years, my technique may be quite flawed! :P 

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