Dishonesty or Dress-Up? Faking Certainty in Grad School

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I always feel a little anxious before the start of a new semester, and part of those back-to-school butterflies come from knowing that I’m going to have to talk about my research.  It’s not the discussion of my ideas, which is actually a lot of fun; it’s the way that discussion is framed that makes me nervous.  Most classes start with, “Let’s go around the room and tell us your name and your area of research.”  As in, “describe the corner of the field in which you’ve set up your intellectual camp, and let us judge how good you are at talking about something that you claim to be an expert in.”  You’re also expected to write little bios of yourself for newsletters and websites, and the prompt is the same: tell us what kind of research you do, you who claim the title of Researcher.  Prove yourself.

Everyone gives these polished, eloquent elevator speeches with words like “liminal” and “internalized” and “contingent.”  When it’s your turn, you take a deep breath and hope that everybody doesn’t see right through to what a gigantic fraud you are.  Halfway through your little speech, you start to wonder if you have the word “imposter” emblazoned on your forehead.  (Spoiler alert: pretty much everyone feels the same way.)

Part of me gets frustrated with this rigamarole.  We’re still doing coursework: why are being forced to act like we know what the heck we’re doing?  Why can’t we be more okay with saying, “I’m Emily, and I don’t know what my research focus is yet”?  Even if you’re one of those people who goes into a PhD program completely confident that you know what you want to research, your focus will probably change at least a little bit.  And that’s a good thing.  It means that you’re learning and growing.  It means the program in which you’re investing a huge chunk of your life, energy, and sanity is shaping you, which is what it’s supposed to do.  I have a topic that I’ve written one long paper about, and it interests me, but I’m nowhere near certain that I’m going to carry it with me for the next four years, clear into dissertation-land.  Truthfully, I don’t really want that certainty.  I prefer to be completely open to what my readings, papers, and class discussions have to teach me.

So why is it that I am constantly being asked to fake that certainty, especially during the first week of school?  It feels heavily performative and vaguely dishonest.

But this week, I’ve been thinking that maybe I’ve been looking at it the wrong way.  Instead of seeing those introductions as dishonest, I’m trying to think of them as dress-up.  Kids love playing dress-up, because it gives them the opportunity to try on different identities and see how they feel.  Dressing up goads the imagination into considering what it would be like to actually become a doctor or teacher or cowboy or superhero or fairy princess.  The clothes become a synecdoche for a possible future life.  Dressing up is not dishonest; it is a low stakes game of exploration we play as we figure out what path will suit us best.

So I’m going to use my bios and introductions this fall to play dress-up.  I want to see how it sounds to say out loud, “My name is Emily Wilson, and I’m interested in how a literacy based approach might be an effective intervention for trauma in the lives of military-connected students.”  My area of research is going to be my calling card when I go on the job market.  Just as dress-up clothes instantly identify the imaginary role, the dissertation topic instantly signals who I am to the academic world, what conversations I’m a part of, what population I want to go to bat for.  It’s not something to choose flippantly.  And while the trunk stuffed with outfits is available to me, why not make the most of it?  Why not take a turn trying on what appears to be a wildly unsuitable role (of the superhero or fairy princess variety) and see what it’s like?

It’s too early to be pigeon-holed and I don’t want to fake a certainty I don’t yet feel.  But I do want the chance to try a few ideas on for size and see where the next couple of years take me.  This journey is as much about the process as it is about the final product.

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