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Diplomatics, the PhD, and Imposter syndrome

28 May, 2011

First, thanks to Historian on the Edge for answering my last question patiently, because it was not the smartest question ever. Still wondering about the historiography, though, and hoping that’s not an obvious thing, too.

Well, I suppose it is, because I can always read the footnotes, but who keeps copies of Bresslau, et al., around the house? They aren’t in my uni’s library, either.

Anyway, I was thinking this morning a bit more about this whole diplomatics thing. Before I met my good friend at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe, I don’t think I actually knew there was such a thing and that it had a name. I’d written a doctoral thesis for a committee that included someone who uses charters and all sorts of other legal documents, a Fellow of the MAA, and known for his work on disputes and land tenure (a bit), and I’d never heard of Diplomatics as a field. In fact, I don’t think I knew that there was such a thing as a ‘charter person’ vel sim. I just happened to be using a single set of charters and a couple of sets of annals to talk about what they could tell us about Carolingian administration. On the way, I found that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without some understandings of onomastics (a word I didn’t know, because in my head it was Namenkunde, whether Personen- or Orts-), so I read about leading names, and name-elements, and other such things. And of course, this led me to various prosopographical works (thank goodness I had already worked a bit with the PIR on a couple of papers in grad school, so the idea was not foreign to me), which I also read, used, and disagreed with at times. No really, there are bits of my thesis where I argue against both Borgolte and Mitterauer, for example.


Where am I going with this? Leeds. In the short term. I love going to Leeds. If I had to choose only one conference, that would be it. It is the conference with the highest concentration of cool and smart people who do what I want to do, and they do it really well. Leeds allows me to pretend that I’m good enough at what I do to fit in, and I love that my brain has to work really, really hard. It’s the mental equivalent of a really good long bike ride or run through the woods. It makes me think I might even be able to survive a sabbatical semester amongst my UK colleagues, who are amongst the most generous people I know.

In the long term, though, Leeds scares the hell out of me. Every day is a day where I realize that there are things I have simply missed out on. Some of these things are easy to explain, I think. There are a lot of medievalists in the UK, and it’s a small enough place that scholars regularly meet and present their work to each other at seminars. There are such things in the US, but we’re pretty spread out. When I was an undergrad at Beachy U, there were regular visits by scholars who gave papers, and I know that such things happen in the US in places where there are enough medievalists to have regular seminars — places like LA, and the Bay Area, and places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. But my grad school wasn’t so advantageously located. I also think I wasn’t really acculturated in a way that I understood that this was what people did — I went to such seminars and talks as were available because someone told undergraduate me I was supposed to — but not that they served a function other than being interesting, yet somewhat passive, activities.

I know, right?

I am not sure how much of this was me being obtuse. As a postgraduate student, I largely saw research and writing as evils necessary to getting a teaching position. I think maybe this is because I never really saw my professors as scholars. They didn’t really talk about it much, in the sense of process, or why they loved it, and they were all fantastic teachers. My PhD program required that we undergo teacher training, and that we teach lecture courses of our own. It was great training, and definitely played a huge part in my being employed, but it also helped to create a situation where the immediate needs of students took precedence over my research for the very beginning. I was good at teaching, and the rewards were immediate. Research, not so much.

Why not? Well, because I had no idea what I was doing. My thesis advisor is mostly an archaeologist. People still raise their eyebrows when I tell them who I worked with, because Late Antiquity is not necessarily Early Medieval, and the sorts of things that Doktorvater does are really nothing like what I do. But he and I bonded when I went to Grad U, and because of a set of freak occurrences, there was no one else to work with at the time I began to work on my thesis. We hired Fellow of MAA shortly thereafter, but I was always intimidated by him, and never had a conversation with him where I didn’t feel like a complete idiot. Many years later, I realized he doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, and just approaches things very different to how I do. But at the time, I couldn’t see working with him. So I put together a prospectus, defended it, got a DAAD, and went off to Germany, where the only person I knew was another Late Antiquarian. He introduced me to medievalists on the faculty, but mostly, I hid and worked by myself.

I wrote my PhD in a vacuum, more or less. At first I was connected to the university, but I didn’t really make friends, and felt pretty much isolated. None of the people I knew worked on anything related to what I was doing. Then I started dating X, and somehow my ties to people at the university were replaced by his friends. There was my advisor, but no connection really to “here are things happening in our field that you should know about.” The more physically isolated I was, the worse my Imposter Syndrome got — and the grounds for it seemed to be more and more realistic. The PhD finally was finished, signed off, complete — not that it mattered, because I’d left academia at that point.

Except, of course, it turns out I didn’t. I just spent a few years adding to the huge gaps in my knowledge and picking up bits of what I missed like a magpie attracted to the shiny. I expect I’m not the only person out there who has had experiences like mine, but for me, it’s been really disconcerting to talk about what I do and have other people understand it and be able to give me advice. It’s probably not a bad thing to have approached things as I have — no preconceived notions, after all! And I think if I’d thought of myself as a charter person, or a diplomatics person, I’d have turned out very differently. Even now, I think of myself as a social and political historian who uses charters a lot, although the amount I think about methodology might indicate a diplomatists lurking in the shadows.

It’s lurking there along with the Imposter Syndrome. Even though I am again, or still, working in relative isolation, it’s at least no longer a vacuum. Now it’s a balancing act: engagement, even over the internet, allows a feeling of membership in the community; membership in a community where everybody else knows so damned much* might let the imposter out of the shadows.

*and yes, I do realize that spending my time having to keep up with teaching all the non-US history my department offers (i.e., the whole world from Harappan culture till now) gives me breadth that takes away from the depth my impressive colleagues have. Doesn’t make me feel less dumb, though 🙂

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 May, 2011 5:23 pm

    This is interesting – I only went to Leeds once, but I had a slightly different reaction than you did. I found a lot of people at Leeds took a very narrow approach that wasn't very appealing to me. However, I think this is more to do with our respective fields – there is (or was) a very big difference between the way that North Americans approached my research field and the way that (many) Brits did. (I should also add that there was one cadre of British scholars in my field who were a total exception to my generalization above – doing very cool and fascinating work – mostly associated with one and maybe a second British university). A lot of it seemed to be driven by the availability of sources – some of the Brits were incredibly tied to (what seemed to me) minutiae of archival sources just because they could be (they could pop round to the local archive at any time), whereas we North Americans didn't have that luxury, so had to think about our work in a different way.Not that it still wasn't a great experience going to Leeds – it was. But it's funny how many different ways there are to be medievalists (I guess not that funny, given how much different stuff falls under that label. But still, interesting).

  2. 28 May, 2011 5:51 pm

    Ooh — "ways to be a medievalist" — I never thought about it in those terms. And actually, maybe part of the disconnect I feel is because my approach is one that isn't as common here?

  3. 28 May, 2011 9:10 pm

    Remember that I did start by saying '[a]s I understand it,…' I still don't think that understanding of these things (or indeed what they originally meant) is as fixed as many people would like them to be (though more so, I suspect, than Susan Reynolds thinks they were!).I suffered from Imposter syndrome for years, because I came from a small provincial university (which in those days had 4 or 5 medieval studies PhD students in total: 3 of us now have chairs…) and had had a PhD supervisor who was more interested in getting me to think interesting things than in getting me to read everything ever written, and who was not a powerful 'backer'. [Also, do not ever read my thesis, because it is sh*t and filled with mistakes that would put your allegedly 'dumb' question in some sort of context.]Then I got my first job London, which is frequented by people from Oxbridge, any one of whom knew (and knows) a million times more technical stuff about any number of things than I will ever know about anything. Oh, and they didn't think twice about letting me know that I ought not really to have got my job, which should have gone to X or Y (or, indeed, roughly D to Z, inclusive), higher up the pecking order than me. So for years I felt like an imposter who would – inevitably – eventually get found out. But then one day (and I remember it well: it was a Sunday) I woke up and thought to myself, "You know, [Historian on the Edge], you are pretty damn good at what you do, and sure the world and its dog 'knows' more 'stuff' than you do, but what you do is interesting (and reliable) and wide ranging and makes people think, and that matters … and guess what, regardless of what the Oxbridge types think and say, history isn't a f*cking race, and there is no such thing as being 'best' because people do different things different ways to different levels and in different combinations." And after that, I stopped suffering from imposter syndrome … even if I replaced it with all sorts of other personality defects… But seriously, hang in there because the imposter syndrome is probably the most common stick academics beat themselves up with. If you expect it to be cured by being raised on a shield by the assembled medievalists of Leeds or the 'Zoo, well it ain't gonna happen; you cure it yourself.In other news, I will respond to your comment on charters and the first person at some point. I've been abroad again and need to get my thinking head on again!

  4. 28 May, 2011 9:57 pm

    Oddly enough, it was your PhD supervisor who helped to convince me that I was also worthy of being in this game and nudged me back into it — perhaps because even though I haven't read everything, I can think interesting thoughts? it's a nice idea, at least.And I certainly didn't take your comment as a criticism; I took it more as a "thank goodness someone stated the obvious before I dug myself in too deep," comment!.Fortunately, I don't expect to be raised on a shield. I'm just going for not being drummed out of town! Still, I very much appreciate the encouragement and the sentiments. From where I sit, the differences between Oxbridge and the rest are often less clear, and your own reputation and the people I associate you with put you up in the Really Impressive People group. It's hard to reconcile that with the story you tell, some of which I have picked up over the years in terms of mutual friends and acquaintances who are also more outsiders than insiders — or feel that way. But then, that's part of the whole imposter syndrome, isn't it? We don't see ourselves as others do. The sorts of things that you describe just make it worse, because they are real. Doesn't mean that they are based on fact. Just real.

  5. 28 May, 2011 9:57 pm

    Oh, and i look forward to the rest of the rest of the discussion… after you recover and I finish the conference paper of doom

  6. 5 June, 2011 11:44 pm

    Imposter Syndrome: really, no-one doesn't get this, as far as I can tell. I was told once about a meeting of the Bucknell Group where they all wound up confessing self-doubt to each other. It's the nature of the competitive field and peer review, I think, driving us all mad with fear that someone out there can judge against us. And remember: you'll always have Classen 🙂

  7. 7 June, 2011 11:14 pm

    And here I thought K'zoo would be your favorite cause you get to see me…..ah well, I guess that just gives me another case of Imposter Syndrome…..

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