Rhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.
I’ve recently taken to re-watching an old TV favourite of mine: Faking It. Back when I was at school, I took real delight in this early example of reality television but it’s interesting that this is the first time I’ve thought about it in years. For those of you who missed out, this Channel 4 series that first aired in 2000 portrayed ordinary people attempting to pass themselves off as up-and-coming professionals in a completely different field. Students, cleaners and factory workers, among others, would spend a month learning not only the right skills, but the right lingo, dress, and manners with the help of mentors from the same field. After a crash course, they would have to show the appropriate abilities and persona to persuade a panel of experts that they really were a DJ/ polo player/ burlesque artiste. More often than not, if the novice put the work in, they would be at least partially successful. The show was inspiring, funny and sometimes pretty cringe-inducing but it faded from my mind.
However, it isn’t really a mystery why this old favourite has popped into my head. As I try my hand at more and more tasks associated with life as an academic, that familiar imposter syndrome about which Louise has blogged so well rears its head. In the strange, liminal space between student and academic that is being a postgraduate researcher, the need to make that transition to full academic (whatever that means because, after all, that covers a range of roles) is often tempered by a fear of being seen as presumptuous in some way.
To succeed in Faking It requires a mix of dedication, mentoring, and something more personal. Mentors pass on knowledge of the field but they also help candidates develop their own work, whether that’s visual art, fashion designs or a burlesque act. In some senses this is a little like a PhD. You have to work hard, learn how to adapt your style to the demands of academic convention, whether that’s in a conference abstract or a lecture, and also produce a work of original research, all with the guidance of your supervisor and any other helpful people you pick up along the way. In both cases, there is no handbook that will tell you everything you could possibly know about taking on that role.
Sometimes, this is a scary thought. At school, exams have a very precise set of marking criteria and it’s easy to know exactly what is required (although whether or not you can attain that is another matter). Success is defined narrowly and the goals are often clear. But coming to a PhD, you realise that everyone has their own style. You have people who do all their, say, archival research and write up at the end and then you have someone else who swears by writing as they go along and wouldn’t have it any other way. Some people put footnotes in their abstracts; others find the very idea ridiculous. Gradually, as I have progressed through my studies, I have realised that the markers of “proper” academics on the one hand and the frauds are less defined than I first suspected. That doesn’t mean that there are no standards and we’re all just a bunch of charlatans: try plagiarising, for example and no one will take you seriously again – and quite right too – but there is more flexibility than I had first thought.
This really came to my attention a couple of months ago. I was due to be giving my second-ever paper at a conference and was feeling pretty nervous about it. A call had gone out for volunteers to chair panels, and for some reason, I decided to pile stress upon stress and give it a go. When I found out what panel I had been assigned, I became even more nervous, realising that I wouldn’t be chairing my peers, but a bunch of bona fide academics with real, live academic jobs. Oh, and they were mostly talking about things of which I knew little, so who knew if I’d even be able to ask a question, should the audience fall silent?
In the end, though it was fine and I managed to ask a question, and keep control of a somewhat chatty room. Afterwards, I spoke to one of the very lovely panellists who expressed surprise that it had been my first attempt. Apparently, inexperienced chairs often turn up having done lots of preparation and with lengthy introductions. I just did what I’d seen others do: turn up a little before and ask people what they wanted me to highlight and whether they wanted warnings about time. I acted like I knew what I was doing and that seemed to work.
Now, I’m not saying I will never get nervous about anything like this again because I definitely, definitely will. But what I have found is that faking it as someone who knows what they’re doing can help. Maybe I’m a real academic and maybe I’m not, but as long as I get the job done, am willing to keep learning, and behave fairly in the process, who cares?