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Digital Humanities Impostor Syndrome

Digital Humanities Impostor Syndrome

Today, I watched with interest the Twitter chats about #anvil and #digped. Two weeks ago, I attended a digital humanities reading group at Northeastern. And last week I was accepted as a HASTAC Scholar. But I was lost for a large portion of the Twitter chats, and I didn't understand the article for the reading group at all before we discussed it. So now I'm feeling like a fraud; graduate-school impostor syndrome has metamorphosed into digital-humanities impostor syndrome.

When I voiced this concern on Twitter during the #digped chat, I received some good advice that I thought I might pass along to anyone else who's feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, falling down a hole where everything is "curioser and curioser!": "Fake it until you make it!" (@rogerwhitson) 

And that's what I intend to do (hence this post). It's still a little hard to imagine myself having a great impact on the Twittersphere (since I have fewer than 20 followers), but Twitter isn't the only place to have a online presence. I just found a great blog post, not new to the blogosphere but new to me, that may help anyone who is floundering to find an identity in the great pool of digital humanities:


The author, Lisa Spiro, is the director of NITLE and Anvil (the one of the Twitter chat I followed today). I find her article quite comprehensive and highly useful if you're just starting out.


Do you feel like a HASTAC impostor? What do you do to combat those feelings?


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I'm glad that Roger had some advice for you to seemed useful. I just wanted to welcome you to the community. Faking it until you make it is, perhaps, what we've all done, considering that we are working to define new systems of knowledge and collaborative activity. I know that my colleague at Georgia State, Valerie Robin (@vrobin1000 on Twitter) - a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric/Composition - had some of the same feelings when we began our project this summer. She's said several times in since then that she's surprised how quickly connections and skills have come. 


I carry a multi-layered sense of imposter-ship: starting doctoral studies at the age of 50 after years raising children (what?) and not being in school---then finding myself fascinated by the theoretical frontier of digital spaces when my generation is supposed to be hopelessly stuck in technological prehistory.   But, as Pete says in reference to his friend, I am so amazed at how quickly connections and skills have come, not just as a new scholar of digital humanities, but as a woman re-entering the universe outside the home. The brain is ever-surprising and collaboration ever-inspiring.


Your timing and words are perfect.  Your age is meaningless.  None of us know where it's all heading right now! Fun times. 


I learned dreamweaver from someone of your generation, actually a bit older. In high school I had used quark (school literary magazine editor) and felt like an idiot for not having updated my knowledge. Sometimes people forget that the inventors of most software they use are not digital natives.


Thanks for this post. There are people who have been doing this (digital humanities) for a while and people like me who are just jumping in. I was also accepted as a HASTAC Scholar last week, and I am learning as I go; your post is encouraging.

Also, as a history study you may want to consider joining the Digital History group. You'll find me there along with my friend Ben Weber who started the group.


A great thing about DH is that even for people who've been involved for several years (e.g. me) or many years (as with many of my co-workers at MITH and my graduate advisors), there will always be large areas of DH work where each of us is ignorant. Sure, there are commonplaces and vocabulary that everyone picks up over time, as well as a sense of some of the more-trodden discussions (e.g. the community attitude toward big data, small data, deep data; toward defining what is DH and who is a DHer; and towards games and education, online learning, and the scholarly status of digital creations). But if you go to a THATCamp (which I heartily recommend if you haven't), you'll quickly notice that

  • the person with the most to say in one session is a complete n00b in a later session (people go to THATCamps to learn stuff they don't know!),
  • that almost everyone there is excited to explain their work to anyone who will listen--and that explaining it to someone with no background in their area means that they'll get to hear new types of feedback, and
  • that, much less than in the traditional humanities (though of course things aren't perfectly utopianic here either), you don't need to wait to ascend the hierarchy to get your projects seen, to talk in or lead a session (or even run your own THATCamp on the THATCamp topic of your dreams!), or to learn skills and tools that allow you to do better work without the benefits of a full-time position, tenure, or much/any funding (e.g. Omeka, Zotero, Wordpress--all tools THATCampers teach at most Bootcamps that are free or require cheap hosting fees)

DH, as I and many see it, has a strong pedagogical focus; part of everyone's work in their particular niche of DH (whether that's mapping, topic modeling, something else) is not only to do awesome things, but to share it with the DH community in a way that non-specialists can understand. There's also a great movement in DH toward a more public humanities aimed at people outside the academy who are passionantly curious about history, narrative, etc. (e.g. the 4humanities project and work that seeks to use the wisdom of the crowd for interpretive rather than mechanical tasks, such as the Scholars' Lab's Prism, comments in the LOC historical photo Flickr stream, and the NYPL menus project).

I don't mean to say that you (or anyone) won't feel like an imposter for a while upon first getting involved in DH (or, as I've pointed out, that you won't continue to feel like an imposter recurrently over the years as DH folds in new tools and approaches and disciplines). What I do mean to say is (from the viewpoint of a fellow grad student) that feeling like an imposter in DH is

  • actually more substantiated in DH than in the traditional humanities, and that's a good thing; I think it's less scary to feel like you don't know enough when you actually don't and can't possibly be an expert on everything that's going on. As Ted Underwood recently pointed out, DH is less fakable than the traditional humanities because of the skill-learning and interdisicplinarity involved, but I take that to mean it frees everyone up to admit ignorance and n00bishness without losing professional face--and to get the help they desire.
  • not something that you should let make you feel like "less DH" than anyone else; everyone was a n00b with every DH skill at one point, the proliferation of new tools and approaches means that everyone is going to be a n00b at something again and again, and the DH community is pretty good (and getting better) at offering opportunities online and off for learning about the stuff you want to know but don't yet understand.

Follow the people smart Tweeps you already know are following, and don't be afraid to tweet at them when you don't follow something. CHNM's Tom Scheinfeldt has a great blog post/Debates in DH chapter (the latter is another great resource for diving into DH, by the way: both chapters and really finely crafted blog posts covering a lot of the field's preoccupations) discussing how DH is a peculiarly "nice" field, in large part because of our emphasis on skills and methodology (so there's another benefit to those aspects of DH that make it a little harder to pick up). If someone's doing DH and they're not willing to at least say "try going and reading this book/post/project site", they're going to be a bit anomalous. Also, don't be shy about tweeting a link when you have a new blog post, or to mention you Twitter handle frequently (I looked up your handle after reading this post, but I'm usually more lazy about that!).

Also, it's toally okay to not care about some aspects of the DH field; choose the things that help you do better work in areas you care about. Even if you don't know how your non-DH work relates to what people are doing digitally yet, DH probably relates way more than you can currently imagine. It did for me: I left college wanting to somehow mash up my love of complex books and making websites, then found out about online editions, topic modeling, text visualization, literary games... and a lot of other amazing things that people with similar interests were doing with digital tools. Finding out that other people were doing this stuff was an eye-opener! You know what you care about, so enlist others to help you find the DH work that might intrigue you or help you out, either through HASTAC posts, tweeting, or the DH Q&A site.

Oh, and for anyone reading this who's intrigued by DH but hasn't gone to a THATCamp: you should. Really. Check out the main page and look for one near you (some can also offer limited travel assistance to a few attendees), or tweet @thatcamp if you need help or reassurance that you'll fit in :) And yes, THATCamps are full of people just dipping their toes (or cannon-balling) into the DH waters, so it will be pretty impossible for you to feel like you don't fit in at one.


Thank you all for the kind and helpful discussion. Ironically, discussing being an impostor has made me feel less of one; I'm looking forward to a very exciting and productive year as a HASTAC Scholar!


In one sense I completely agree with your sentiments about feeling the imposter; half of my brain wants to cry out: "exactly!" But there's another voice inside my head saying, "Imposter syndrome? Why bother?" 

Just a bit over a year ago, I began as what might be called the ultimate imposter in an English department-based rhetoric and composition M.A. program. I have a B.S. in molecular biology, an M.S. in microbiology, worked and self-identified as a microbiologist for over ten years. I asked to transfer from a PhD program in food science, where I was studying wine microbiology, to the English department after realizing that, much as I loved microbiology and lab work, the program was doing nearly nothing to prepare me for my future career. I knew that I cared more about science communication than about generating data and that I wanted to write about science rather than run a lab. I wanted to spend time reading and writing rather than having to steal hurried moments away from feeding bacteria to write a blog post here and there. When I asked to transfer to English, I was asked to apply as though I were a brand-new applicant to the university. I chose, for my writing samples, a detailed analysis of a bacteriology research article and a popular press article I had written about bacteria in wine. And I didn't realize that was strange. That's how much of an outsider I was. 

I was and continued to be delighted in my new home, but I felt and in some ways continue to see myself as an imposter. I look at some of my colleagues, listen to their discourse, and think, "Gosh, it's as though they were born to do this! How can I ever catch up to their level of knowledge or teach myself their way of thinking!?" 

But, if I look at what has enabled me to succeed in this department over the past year -- to be accepted by the community, to find a niche for myself, to win an assistantship as director of our department's computer lab, to go to a few conferences -- it's been my uniqueness, my peculiar background, my off-kilter way of thinking...indeed, the very things that make me an imposter in this department. I've found a place here because I've tried to find a place, but also because I've tried to hold on to who I am as a scholar even when it means that I look like an imposter. 

So, I wonder: why do we worry about being imposters? Why do we even think in terms of being an imposter? "Imposter" implies a group -- maybe even a group of "normal" people or of people who "belong" -- to whom we are comparing ourselves. I think that I'd rather think of academic communities as groups of people who are all different and who aren't trying to become some magical group of insiders, because that would homogenize us. 


Hey Abby,

I'm a mixture of amused/embarrassed because I just posted my very first HASTAC blog entry on my feelings of being a DH impostor... and then promptly saw this post from last week. Oops. I'm coming from a slightly different place (I'm a library and info science student with no interest in DH work outside of facilitating it) but still, the challenge of finding a place must be pretty widespread. ALL of this is new to me. There must be a lot of impostors running around.