Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Still feeling fraudulent after all these years

Last week concluded the lecture series that a colleague and I have been organizing all year. It's been great, and we've had some awesomely smart people out, but it's also been a lot of work. Though looking after a visitor always involves some anxiety (will the plane be on time, will the hotel be okay, will the audience be big enough), all the previous speakers were people with whom I or my co-organizer were friends, or at least had warm professional relationships. So amidst the hassle and anxiety we were also just really looking forward to hanging out with them.

This final speaker, however, was someone neither of us knew and whom I invited in a fit of ambitious optimism. She's genuinely famous (or at least famous-for-academia) and arguably the most important scholar in my subfield. This means that, as her visit approached, I was consumed with anxiety--and not only about the practical details. I was also experiencing a total failure of imagination when I tried to picture her having dinner in my house or even having a conversation with me. (And two days = lots of conversation time.) For one thing, she's intimidatingly learned. And for another, she's a full generation older than I. And just as my students are often astonished to see me at the grocery store or to learn that I know who Lady Gaga is, it can be hard for me to believe that someone so far above me in the profession is, like, a regular person: someone who tells jokes and does funny voices and has favorite time-wasting sites on the internet.

There may also have been another reason the whole idea of her visit freaked me out a little: I'd long believed her to be the reason that I didn't get a particular post-MLA campus visit. It was a school I was already keen on, and the hiring committee was warm and lovely, seemingly very interested in my work, and mostly pitching me softball questions. Then someone asked, "So is [Scholar X] important to your work?"

And I said, "No."

Here's some free advice to the job-seekers out there: this is never the right answer to that question. And in fact, it wasn't even quite true; I just panicked. I'd read a few of her articles on one of my authors--and even had strong opinions about them--but in the moment all I could think was, "Shit. I haven't read Book Y or Book Z. Why did I never get around to them? OBVIOUSLY I'm a fraud."

This episode wasn't scarring or even anything I've thought much about since it happened; there are funnier and more mortifying stories from my other MLA interviews. But I do think that the interview established a link in my brain between Scholar X and my sense of my own intellectual inadequacies. I've now read several of her books and I could easily have a conversation about them, but her name still registers with me emotionally in a key different from the names of other scholars of comparable stature.

But her visit went fine; of course it did. She was charming and gracious and gave an excellent lecture, and I think my colleagues and institution showed to advantage as well. And hey: now she knows I exist! At least one thing has changed in six years.


rachel said...

i was in the exact same situation a few weeks ago, and was shocked (and relieved) when the time went both quickly and well. while i had no traumatic MLA story, I did have a weird story about how famous scholar and I had met back when I was a grad student and she was on the market, as well as her having been a grad student where I was generation earlier (UKINRU). a couple of boozy dinners didn't hurt (and were tasty). as much fun as it was, i am glad not to be doing any hosting next year.

Flavia said...


It's always comforting to realize that other people don't actually remember the awkward events (if that's what you're describing, from your first meeting with your own famous scholar) that loom so large in our own minds.

I went around for years ashamed about the horrible undergraduate senior essay I wrote under the advisement of a woman only 10 years older than I, whom I now see all the time at conferences, and whom I really admire. It eventually became clear she had no specific memory of that project. It was a great load off my mind.