by Korey Tillman
Five years ago, I was in an airport resting my feet on my guitar case when a man walked by and asked, “Oh so you play?” I responded, “Yeah, I’m just a novice.” Without hesitation the man sternly replied, “No you are a novice.” From this brief exchange, I learned the impact of “just,” a simple four-letter word.
Higher education revealed to me how harmful that impact could be during the first year of my PhD program in sociology. In a closed door meeting with prospective graduate students, a member of my cohort pointed to me and said, “he’s just a master’s student,” before continuing to tell the group that the reason I was able to contribute to seminars at my level of sophistication was due to me reading a sociology 101 textbook the summer before entering the program. The word “just” relegated me to a less-than status because of my matriculation as a bachelor’s to PhD student, while simultaneously attributing my intellectual abilities in graduate-level seminars to a single undergraduate textbook.
Impostor syndrome is a product of how we understand ourselves within spaces that continually encourage self-doubt, and cultivate interactions that deny our self-worth. To challenge impostor syndrome and reshape how scholars come to understand themselves and support each other, colleagues and I are employing another simple four-letter word: love.
My greatest accomplishment was having a community who loved me before I knew what love was—impostor syndrome disrupts your connection from such a community. #SocAF, a double entendre meaning “Sociology Affirmations” or “Sociology as Fuck,” is a Twitter-based movement to change how scholars come to understand themselves in the field of sociology and academia broadly. Our aim is to problematize and eliminate the idea of impostor syndrome, moving from a deficit model of understanding ourselves and our scholarship, to a model of self-love and communal affirmation.
There is no ideal sociologist or definition of success, yet the culture of academia causes scholars to compare themselves to fictitious standards, prompting feelings of inadequacy. The inimical wave of impostor syndrome has washed over our discipline, only to recede and leave scholars soaked with self-doubt and adverse mental-health effects. Faculty and graduate students of color, who already wade through the marginalizing waters of structural oppression and microaggressions, stand at the shoreline of their careers with an incessant hesitation to set sail. Below, I outline the objectives that guide our group as we navigate this movement to reconceptualize our self-worth outside of an ivory tower buttressed by American Individualism and painted with faded notions of meritocracy.
Deconstruct the myth of the ideal type. If I was to ask scholars to entertain the question: who is the greatest sociologist of all time? The debate would be longer than the itemized budgets our departments request before conference travel. By emphasizing success as amorphous, personal, and achievable, we begin to set realistic expectations that assert our agency within the context of a publish or perish paradigm.
Uplift non-traditional “wins.” In our view, if a student gives you a compliment on your teaching, that is equally as important as receiving an NSF or Ford fellowship. Prestigious awards and accomplishments rest upon a zero-sum logic, promoting winners and losers. Yes, receiving support for your research is great, yet in order to combat the hierarchical logic of achievements, we must laud the everyday progress. Especially during these precarious and daunting times of COVID-19, to clear your inbox or to move that blinking cursor of Microsoft Word forward with conviction is no small feat—let’s not treat it as such.
Reclaim our positionality. We all have a story and sometimes those stories connect and guide us to engage in fascinating research. I use my lived experience as a Black man raised in a community flattened by mass incarceration to build abolitionist research projects within the sub-field of radical criminology. Instead of shying away from our embodied experiences, we can learn a lesson from women of color feminists, and leverage those experiences while committing rigorous and meaningful research.
The possible impact of #SocAF is immense. We envision the ivory tower rebuilt with the “love ethic” expressed by bell hooks. We anticipate the release of marginalized scholars from the shorelines of hesitation, to navigate the uncharted waters of intellectual innovation and healthy productivity. We foresee transformation.
Every Wednesday on Twitter from 1pm – 3pm EDT, our base of scholars convene to post about their accomplishments from the previous week and to uplift the accomplishments of others using the hashtag #SocAF. Below we have placed our Twitter handles in hopes that you will join us in changing the discipline, and academia at large, by demonstrating to someone else the impact of a simple four-letter word.
The #SocAF Collective