STEM Education Poetry

Impostor Syndrome

Wide confusion, a chem class can foster
With material dense, across roster.
Here, a theme that’s implicit,
Rhyme attempts to elicit:
Most of us sometimes feel like impostors.  

This non-Twitter poem describes another phenomenon that I remember encountering in my own chemistry coursework; another one that I could name only years later.  As with other poems I’ve written, my hope is that some deliberate discussion of such topics may be useful to students.

Wide confusion, a chem class can foster /
With material dense, across roster.  
Chemistry courses are particularly demanding because they involve densely complex concepts described by densely complex language. Chemistry professor Henry A. Bent has characterized this overlap as “strange terms for strange things,” echoing Lucretius’s description of scientific translation from millennia earlier: “find[ing] strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing.”   Further, General Chemistry enrolls students from many majors.  Finally, the course moves at a fast pace, to cover all the technical content expected in this widely-used prerequisite.  The combination can be confusing for many students in the course, “across [the] roster.” 

Here, a theme that’s implicit, / Rhyme attempts to elicit
As with my other STEM-education-categorized poems, this limerick emphasizes an underlying theme not officially explored in most chemistry textbooks or curricula.      

Most of us sometimes feel like impostors.
It is common in chemistry coursework to feel the pressure of impostor syndrome: an insidious belief that one has only succeeded thus far due to fraud.  That is, if someone earned high grades in all previous classes and suddenly finds a course unexpectedly difficult, it is a common response for them to believe that this is because they have been able to fool people all the way along until now.  This isn’t true.  College science courses are uniquely challenging and require different study techniques: moreover, these overarching structural obstacles are rarely visible, a compounding factor that persists through academia and the working world.  

When facing a new job or task in my own life, I often think of Bill Watterson’s wonderful comic Calvin and Hobbes: this storyline in particular, in which Calvin navigates his first baseball game without actually having been taught the rules.  At one point, he notices that the batting and fielding teams are changing places but, without an understanding of his responsibilities, he doesn’t move from his own place in the outfield.  A few panels later, he accidentally catches a fly ball from one of the batters on his own team.  Ultimately, facing widespread criticism, he leaves the team, and his terrible coach calls him a quitter.  Calvin’s misguidedly optimistic line from early on– “Well, I’m sure someone would tell me if I was supposed to be doing anything different”– comes to mind often in new situations, where the biggest pictures are often the least acknowledged.

In my own experience, impostor syndrome doesn’t ever go completely away: hence my shift to the first-person voice in the poem’s last line.  However, being able to name it is helpful, as is the knowledge that it can afflict almost everyone at times; I would offer that information to any students I teach.