Hi, I’m Hazel. She/They is fine with me. I’m 5 foot 1 on a good day - when I remember to stand up straight and I’m wearing shoes. I, currently, have brown hair with half of my head shaved. I have visible tattoos and piercings. I often get told that I don’t look my 30 (nearly 31) years of age. This may be because I’m constantly battling with the urge to dress in a 90s grunge aesthetic.
I’m sure this is more information than is expected in polite society. However, I’m quite bored of polite society so we’re just going to go with it.
That’s a description of me, a painfully accurate one. However, it’s not who I am. I think most people will agree that they are more than their exterior, aesthetic, hobbies or governmentally mandated demographic descriptions. So why are we so quick to define ourselves in such as manner? I often have students declare themselves ‘not smart enough’, ‘not good enough’, ‘too old’, ‘too young’, ‘bad at reading’, ‘bad at writing,’ and the list goes on. You may even have described yourself this way. I want to spend some time here thinking about identity, particularly that of academic identity.
When I first went to university, I expected large lecture theatres and small seminar groups with professors who wore tweed jackets with elbow patches. I did get that to some extent. I swear to you one of my profs unironically wore a cravat. But mostly, my lecturers were pretty normal; they wore jeans and shirts. Yeah, there was always that one guy in a full suit, but there was also the guy with the predilection for Hawaiian shirts or the guy who wore ill-fitting jumpers and Dr Martens. Our perception of universities is often swayed by media representations of universities, which portray a glamourised depiction of Russell Group or Ivy League institutions – all cavernous dining halls and ancient stone staircases. Most people don’t attend those types of universities. A lot of people, in the UK at least, attend post-92 unis. I have attended old-school Russel Group universities and modern ex-polytechnics. For me, only real difference was the age (and condition) of the buildings.
Upon the discovery that university wasn't quite what I was expecting, I also found out that I never quite felt like I deserved to be there - even now, in my capacity as an Academic Skills Tutor, I still feel this way sometimes. I can often feel like I’m the odd one out, that everyone else deserves to be there and I don’t. Now there’s no evidence to support this, I've worked at universities for 8 years, I've learned a lot and I've got qualifications and experience to show for it. Yet I can still find myself asking why is it me doing this? Do I deserve to be doing this? Should I be doing this? What if someday everyone figures out that I don’t fit in?
I'm not writing this to express to my existential breakdown to you, I'm writing this because I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels this way. The number of students who are passionate about university and put the work and effort in and yet still think that maybe they shouldn't be here... well I can tell you that there are more of us than most people think. I found dealing with these feelings a lot easier once I found out about imposter syndrome and I started seeing it at work all around me.
When I first got into teaching, one of my favourite lecturers ended up being my mentor. I remember sitting in the pub with him after quite a stressful week and telling him how I get scared before I enter a classroom. I expected him to tell me that I should quit, and that teaching wasn’t for me. But what he actually said was – and I’m paraphrasing here - “I've been teaching for 20 years, and I still get scared when I walk into a classroom, you should always care enough for it to scare you a little, it’s normal, don’t worry.”
I was never a bad student, but I was never the best student. I've struggled with dyslexia and mental health. I'm easily distracted and I'm definitely a procrastinator, but I did it and so can you. And if you find yourself doubting yourself for no real reason: it’s normal, don’t worry and you’ve got this!
I'm a professional geek and perpetual student, and I'm okay with that. Even if I'm not always the most confident. So, if you're trying to write an assignment and you're feeling that maybe you're not quite good enough, you can do it! Just take it one step at a time: start with the question; figure out what kind of information you need; do the research; read, read and read a bit more; plan your work around the argument you want to put forward; include your evidence; and write.
And remember – things aren't always what we expect, and we aren't always what we expect. Even if you aren't experiencing impostor syndrome, it doesn't mean that those around you aren't. Be kind, be considerate, and help when you can. And don’t worry about the tattoos.