Every night I jam an aluminum folding chair against the front door of my apartment. It gives me piece of mind that, if all the imaginary burglars, murderers, and rapists do come to get me, either they will be unable to enter or the resultant clanging of the chair as they burst through the door will buy me a few extra seconds to … call for help? make sure I’m wearing my cute PJ’s? tap into my undiscovered ass-kicking ninja skills? Honestly, I’ve never thought through this scenario very carefully. But still, every night, in order to ensure a restful night’s sleep, I set up my very high-tech and well-thought-out security system. What does this have to do with “meta-professional” matters in the English department? Such defenses against imaginary criminals lead me to think about how I cope with anxiety, including that which comes from my position as both an English graduate student and as a GTA. It also brings to mind another imaginary group of bogeymen that my folding chair seems ultimately powerless to stop: the fraud police.
When speaking at the New England Institute of Art’s commencement on April 23, 2011, Amanda Palmer talked at length about a group of people she calls the fraud police:
The fraud police are this imaginary, terrifying force of experts and real grown-ups who don’t exist and who come knocking on your door at 3am, when you least expect it, saying, “Fraud police. We’ve been watching you and we have evidence that you have no idea what you are doing. And you stand accused of the crime of completely making shit up as you go along. You do not actually deserve your job and we’re taking everything away. And we are telling everybody.”
Even though Palmer was talking to a room full of arts majors, not English graduate students, I think the basic concept still applies. The fraud police have haunted and harassed me off and on ever since I first started graduate school in Summer 2009, although I hadn’t come to identify them by that name yet.
But, if I am to believe Calvin Thomas’s article “Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English,” it’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world if I don’t know what I’m doing. By insisting that “you must not know what you are doing, it is imperative that you not know what you are doing, that you never know what you are doing, or else you will never do it well” (20), Thomas gives graduate students a seemingly counterintuitive message that is oddly one of the more comforting messages I’ve heard in the last 2 ½ years. If only he hadn’t followed that insight with this gem: “if you are even capable of imagining doing something else, doing anything else, you probably shouldn’t be doing graduate studies in English” (20). Maybe it’s just me, but I have a rather vivid imagination and can imagine myself working any number of different jobs. In fact, this irritating fault of my imagination features prominently when the fraud police come knocking at my door asking, “Why did you pick English? You do know that you are pretty good at that math and science stuff.” But despite the vivid imagination and the possibility of other vague career opportunities, I keep finding myself coming back to English, first for a Master’s degree, now for my PhD. This leads me to believe that on some level, if I wasn’t cut out for this, I would’ve bailed already. Every time I bemoan grading 48 essays or spend the weekend working two twelve-hour days to catch up on coursework, I realize that I don’t actually mind that much, that I possess that kind of masochistic streak Thomas argues might be necessary to do this kind of work. However, this moment of clarity is only a brief stop in the seemingly continuous cycle of doubt. The fraud police do keep to a schedule, you know.
Confrontations with the fraud police can become immensely more complicated in the case of GTAs where the concerns and anxieties of student and teacher converge. For my part, I was thrown into teaching composition with what felt like very little preparation; I have been “guilty of the crime of completely making shit up” so many times I’ve lost count. And, while this has largely turned out OK, I have wondered how it affects my students. In a recent issue of CCC, Dylan B. Dryer reports on a study he did of novice GTAs and how those GTAs “expressed considerable anxiety about—and frequent hostility toward—academic writing conventions and then projected disconcertingly reductive versions of these anxieties and writing practices onto students” (421). Dryer rightly points out the conundrum many GTAs face as “find their writing confidence and competence undermined in one set of classrooms and faculty offices while being positioned (and positioning themselves) as writing experts in another set of classrooms and in their own offices” (425). As a graduate student, I constantly question everything I know and frequently feel as though my brain is threatening mutiny.
But three days a week, I have to try to set that aside and become an authority (of sorts) about writing for my students. I’m not that good an actor, and I hate being disingenuous with them, so I’m sure my students pick up on this incongruity. In fact, I know they do because I talk about my experience writing each of the ENGL 1301 essays and I am all too happy to agree with students when they independently voice the exact same problems with the essays that I experienced. In proposing a possible course of action to solve this problem, Dryer argues that GTAs should be trained to make “more constructive use of the dissonance” they experience in the dual role of teacher and student and the kinds of selves or identities that are produced in those roles (421). Obviously I can’t tell my students, “You’re right, this essay sucks. Don’t write it.” Instead, I try to use myself as a model, not an authority, on how to deal with the hostility towards or misgivings about academic writing conventions.
At the end of her speech on the fraud police, Palmer assures the new graduates that “You will get to a point where the fraud police will come knocking. And you will open the door. And when they accuse you of being a fraud, you will honestly be able to say, ‘You’re right. I still have no idea what I’m actually doing. I am making this shit up as I go along, but it is working out just fine.’” Making productive use of dissonance doesn’t mean hiding from the fraud police or making them go away entirely. It means acknowledging and embracing the anxiety and uncertainty as a productive force, thereby lessening its detrimental impact. It also means implementing strategies that are the equivalent of my aluminum folding chair in that, while they do serve a certain practical function, they are mainly there for reassurance that everything will work out just fine.