Seven manifestations of impostor syndrome for deaf academics

Composed by Maartje De Meulder based upon the chapter by Mel Chua, Maartje De Meulder, Leah Greer, Jon Henner, Lynn Hou, Okan Kubus, Dai O’Brien and Octavian Robinson.

This blog is based on a book chapter: Chua, M., De Meulder, M., Geer, L., Henner, J., Hou, L., Kubus, O., O’Brien, D., & Robinson, O. (2022). 1001 Small Victories: Deaf Academics and Impostor Syndrome. In M. Addison, M. Breeze & Y. Taylor (eds.), Impostor Syndrome in Higher Education Handbook. Palgrave Macmillan.

If you are a deaf scholar, have you ever wondered any of the following:

‘Did I get this job because I’m deaf or because I’m qualified?’, 

‘Am I invited for this keynote presentation for what I do or for what I am?’, 

‘When my expert authority is mediated through an interpreter’s voice, how will people perceive me and my academic persona?’, 

‘I spend so much time and energy just getting access to the academy that I start to wonder: do I even have a right to be here?’ 

If you did, don’t worry: you are no exception. At some point in your career, through a series of cumulative experiences and positionalities that all influence and inform each other, as a marginalized scholar you inevitably start to doubt yourself. You start to wonder if you even deserve all this, and that one day, people will find you out. That phenomenon has been described as impostor syndrome (Clance & Imes 1978).

Eight of us (all deaf scholars who have earned terminal degrees in our respective fields) wrote a chapter about how impostor syndrome manifests in deaf academics. We represent perspectives from the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Germany. We come from different disciplines: linguistics, policy, sociology, history, education, Deaf Studies, and engineering. We represent diverse perspectives: our shared experiences as deaf academics are complicated by the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. Those intersections are also sources of additional labor for us. As Millennials, we benefited from social, institutional, and political changes that allowed privileged deaf people to participate in higher education (e.g. disability rights legislation, and the emergence of Deaf Studies and sign language research as fields of inquiry). The changes, specifically between 2010-2019, created a surge of deaf academics, many tenure-track, who work in post-secondary, predominantly nondeaf educational institutions. As our numbers increase, so does dialogue amongst ourselves about the stigma and value attached to deafness in higher education. The chapter on which this blog is based, is one of the results of this dialogue. Our goal with this chapter is to support deaf scholars who come after us. We want them to know they are not alone in experiencing impostor syndrome. 

Impostor syndrome has been used to describe the phenomena of marginalized individuals (for example women) who felt, despite being high-achieving, that they did not belong in the academy. Among deaf academics, impostor syndrome is manifested in different ways. In this blog we will discuss seven of them. 

  1. Access needs and expectations

The answer to the question of whether deaf people belong in the academy is heavily meditated by access and the monetary and emotional cost of it. As graduate students, our access needs – sign language interpreters, notetakers, and captionists – were largely met. But as deaf researchers and faculty, we have different access needs and expectations. In this phase of our careers we are more often the ones providing trainings instead of following them, we are not students but the ones who teach, we don’t just participate in conferences but give presentations, we lead panels instead of just joining them, we are involved in high-level meetings, we sit in PhD committees. At the same time, at this point in our careers, we are not only expected to fulfill the conditions of our academic contract (for all intents and purposes, identical to those of our nondeaf colleagues), but also to manage all the access requirements we need in order to fulfil our contract. Many institutions have disability services specially designed to serve deaf undergraduate and graduate students, but not deaf faculty. In Germany, deaf job candidates are generally expected to secure funding for interpreting services before they can accept faculty positions. The constant negotiation over access costs, defending the value of our presence, research, and instruction, accumulates a toll. After all, much of our work in obtaining access is emphasizing what we cannot do. 

2. Deaf scholars as facilitator or novelty

Robinson and Henner (2019) described how in the U.S., deaf scholars were valued mostly for their ability to teach ASL and exist as facilitators for a language seen as a novelty, and as cash cows for a university. Moreover, while sign languages like ASL are seen as profitable for universities, studying them is seen as a novelty (Hochesgang, 2019). The discrepancy between the two perspectives is likely because deaf scholars are not visible, or because deaf scholars need to do more invisible labour to increase their own visibility. Another issue is how our colleagues view deafness and disability. In many departments, even in Special Education where the focus is typically on disabled people, disability itself is seen as otherness. The population of deaf and disabled people exist as a ‘research topic’ and group to be served and helped rather than as people who deserve equitable input. 

3. Attending conferences

Other experiences in the academy can further compound feelings of inadequacy. When we give presentations at conferences, for example about a linguistic aspect of sign languages, it happens that the first question from our nondeaf academic peers is ‘wow, are sign languages real languages?’ ‘Aren’t they universal?’ ‘How many sign languages do you know?’ These kind of comments and questions, although well-meant, often erode our expert authority as scholars, not in the least for ourselves. Also, the logistics and emotions of attending conferences and networking with an interpreter at our side is not at all without challenges.  

4. Researcher positionality

As scholars, we need to publish. But journal reviewers sometimes do not always understand why sign languages are relevant topics of study for the field of multimodal communication at all. As deaf scholars we often get the feeling that our research is not seen as valid because of perceived ‘bias’ – the idea that deaf scholars (or scholars from other marginalized groups) are not capable of doing research on something that is seen as ‘too close’ to us. In Deaf Studies publications, it is common practice to write about one’s own positionality, but expectations for reflexivity vary for different researchers. Most nondeaf scholars do not appear to feel the need or are not expected to ‘come out’ this way. Deaf scholars are expected to be open about their position while many aspects of dominant researchers doing research (whiteness, abledness, etc.) remain unmarked.

5. Modality chauvinism

If you are a scholar of sign languages, you are a scholar of languages best reserved for hearing babies, curious undergraduates, and disabled people who do not have sufficient ability to use speech. Academics who use the languages of these groups are often perceived as similarly infantile, curious, and incapable of speech. What does it mean for us to exist in an environment where people question our ability to be an academic? 

6. Working with interpreters

Working with sign language interpreters is a significant source of impostor syndrome for deaf academics because once we move beyond the costs of access, we confront questions about our voices being mediated by interpreters who often are not sufficiently trained, lack content-area expertise, have not developed sufficient linguistic fluency to interpret the register of language used in the academy, and/or are not familiar with the individuals and terminology particular to our institution.

Working with interpreters makes us hyper-visible and makes it difficult for us to sneak out of a meeting to teach or attend another meeting just as nondeaf faculty often do, without drawing attention to ourselves. We are visible when interpreters interrupt the speaker for clarification, because they did not understand all of the technical jargon, did not catch something, or did not know how to fingerspell a word, and we can end up being blamed for the interpreter’s lack of knowledge. But we are rendered invisible when discussions become heated and nondeaf individuals talk over one another. Not only does that leave deaf participants without equivalent access to nondeaf academics, it makes it impossible to interject timely contributions to the conversation.

7. Availability of interpreters

We also have to deal with limited availability of interpreters. Often suitable accommodations cannot be found in time for participation in departmental meetings, training courses, or administrative or continuing professional development responsibilities. In these cases, we are often under pressure to excuse ourselves from responsibilities rather than insist that the meetings or training is postponed. Repeated and accumulated postponements can leave us questioning if meetings and courses can continue without our presence and direct input. This can feed into any pre-existing feelings of insecurity or inadequacy, reinforcing our beliefs that we may not belong to the academy and do not deserve to work there.

All of this combines to create a barrier between deaf academics and our colleagues in such a way that fosters the growth of impostor syndrome. We may well have all the necessary types and forms of academic capital to make our mark and contribute to the academy in various ways, but this may not be recognized by our colleagues or the academy at large. We have to balance performing competence and educating people about access needs while pursuing our scholarly agendas and performing incompetence to establish accommodations.

1001 Victories 

If you think, after reading this, that we are struggling with impostor syndrome and negative feelings of self-doubt, guilt and resentment 24/7, think twice. We have found ways to resist, and to celebrate not only the 1001 needles every day, but also the 1001 victories (Ladd, 2003). And often, we celebrate together. We have created an international network and hold international biennial meetings. In the age of social media, much of our conversations have transitioned to a loosely formed global network of deaf scholars who connect with each other. We organize reading groups and writing retreats that attract deaf scholars from around the globe, and offer guidance and support to junior and early-career researchers. In addition to these self-organised spaces, we have found niches within institutions like the (now defunct) Centre for Deaf Studies in Bristol (at which some of us used to study), the Mobile Deaf research group at Heriot Watt University, and Bridges to the Doctorate in Rochester, New York. We also undertake scholarly studies on deaf eco-systems and workplace changes. Our public and intellectual work comes in many different forms. Some of us are active tweeters and as such engage in public scholarship, which gives us a massive platform to disseminate our work and ideas, and engage with other deaf and nondeaf researchers alike. We are members of journal review and editorial boards and as such direct the future of our research fields. Some of us share content of our presentations on e.g. our personal websites. We established refereed academic journals and websites like the Journal of American Sign Language and LiteratureDeaf Studies Digital Journal, and Acadeafic. Finally, some of us are levering our growing and permanent existence in academe to dismantle and transform current infrastructures of the academe. We are here and we call on our tenured and nondeaf faculty to make academe more just, accessible, and inclusive for everyone. 

References

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Multilingual Matters.


Mel Chua is a DeafDisabled scholar of colour in the USA who is currently 
navigating the medical-industrial complex in the hopes of someday coming 
back to academia as an engineering professor. An auditory low-pass 
filter, titanium-framed cyborg, and dancer, Mel’s research interests 
include open source, engineering education culture, and embodied 
engineering/engineering embodiments. Mel is on Twitter as @mchua

Maartje De Meulder, she/her, is senior researcher at the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht HU in the Netherlands. Her research interests are in Deaf Studies, applied language studies, language technologies and the sociology of interpreting. She’s on Twitter as @mdemeulder

Leah, she/her, is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at California State University, Sacramento. She received a PhD in linguistics from The University of Texas at Austin. She is the co-author of an ASL curriculum designed specifically for hearing families of deaf and hard of hearing children, called ASL at Home.

Dai O’Brien is Associate Professor in BSL and Deaf Studies in York St John University, York. He is interested in using creative, visual research methods to explore deaf people’s experiences of space and place. When not working, he enjoys running and yoga. He’s on Twitter as @DrDaiJestive

Octavian E. Robinson earned his PhD in history from the Ohio State University and is Associate Professor in Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. He is a historian-by-training, disability studies scholar by fortune. While he dabbles in a variety of fields, all of his work is grounded in questions of belonging driven by his interest in the histories of marginalized populations within the United States during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the center of his work are questions of Disability Justice. He’s on Twitter as @DeafHistorian

Jonathan Henner is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work thus far has taken three strands: a) he examines how different factors impact the development of language and cognitive skills in deaf and hard of hearing children; b) he looks at how to best asses and measure the language skills of deaf and hard of hearing populations, and c) he examines the experiences that deaf academics have in academia and how scientists interact with deaf people. He’s on Twitter as @jmhenner

Lynn “Lina” Hou (she/they) is Assistant Professor in the Linguistics Department at University of California, Santa Barbara (US). She received her PhD in Linguistics from The University of Texas at Austin. She is the director of Making Hands, a new research lab that is dedicated to documentation & description of deaf people, signed languages & signing communities with a focus on social justice.

Okan Kubus is W2-Professor at the Department of Sign Language Interpreting at the University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg-Stendal. They teach sign language linguistics, sign language interpreting and Deaf Studies. They collect magnets from around the world and hope to have a collection of 500 soon. Their favorite one is the magnet from their alma-mater, Middle East Technical University.

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