One of the things I've been contending with recently in my job is working with grad students. I find this really exciting. It is probably the aspect of my job about which I am most invigorated.
But I do have some serious impostor syndrome. Having just defended my own PhD in December 2005, it feels - no matter how much I reason with myself - a bit presumptuous of me to be gatekeeping for advanced students. Being the university examiner on that thesis defense a few weeks ago - which meant I was the "special" one, the one who asked the first and supposedly hardest questions - did my head in. I was nervous, for god's sake.
And then last week there was a thing with one of the grad students in my fourth-year class - another MFA student, a working artist with a highly theoretical bent. She wrote a critical response to a reading we'd done. Her response was simply an ungrounded, political rant that had very little to do with the reading. I was very worried about what to do about this, feeling that some of the ways I could call her on it would be perceived as too subjective. (Read: feeling freaked out about my authority over a grad student.) So I wrote extensive comments about the major inconsistencies in the arguments she was making, which were glaring, and gave her what for a grad student is a low mark - though I did also of course point to the really good things that were buried in there. I did say she should come and talk with me if she wanted to. I felt...well, just weird about it. Who am I to be giving grad students low marks?
Now, this student is on a three-person panel of grad students I've put together to make a presentation during some research-related events in a few weeks. She was going to be giving a paper. The day after I returned the critical response to her, she wrote me a long email in which she said that, because she is an MFA student, she doesn't actually feel comfortable presenting her written, theoretically engaged work, and asking if it was okay if she showed her video work instead. I said sure, whatever she wanted to do was fine - after all, this is for the students, and not for me. But I feel as if it was my response to her work that prompted her crisis in confidence. And, knowing the hell that it is to be a grad student, the constant feeling of intellectual inadequacy, I am quite struck by the fact that I am, possibly, complicit in that. How awful.
Now, it's true that I don't know for certain that it was my comments that prompted this change. But it is also true that she wrote to me about this about 24 hours after receiving my comments. That she had seemed quite excited about her presentation before this - and had sent me her paper, wanting me to read it. It seems this change of heart is more than coincidental.
I guess there's nothing I can do about this, really. Whether or not I am reading this one particular incident correctly, what is important is the recognition that what I say has a lot of weight, especially for grad students. I feel as if I'm moving in to occupy the space I remember that professors occupied when I and others were grad students. They loomed so large. Which is a really very strange recognition. It will take me some time to get used to that.