Do the Humanities have Impostor Syndrome?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick opens her book ‘Planned Obsolescence’ exposing anxiety over the supposed decline of reading as anxiety over a perceived threat to the form of the book, which is a status-laden cultural token. From our previous readings, I gather the humanities community had a similar defensive threat response to the waxing digital humanities. The digital humanities have not obviated the existence of traditional humanities so much as cut into their degree of cultural power. Yet casting the threat to the humanities as critical created a protective reflex to maintain the status quo through the implied threat of extinction.

What do the traditional humanities have to be so anxious about? From the first section of this book, it sounds like plenty.

The humanities are anxious at the increasingly common requirements from administrations and funding sources to show empirical processes and/or quantified results (p47).

Humanities scholars have also failed to apply the very critical thinking they claim as their vital contribution to society to their own academic practices and norms, as evidenced by the long-time lack of challenge to traditional peer review (p10).

Why might humanities scholars have avoided interrogating the peer review process that had such heavy influence on their professional lives? Fitzpatrick proposes five reasons.

  1. philosophical slipperiness around what “truth” is
  2. insufficient empirical skills to prove the disutility of traditional peer review
  3. resistance to self-analysis due to anxiety about self-exposure
  4. resistance to changing traditions
  5. fear of loss of power and prestige

Fitzpatrick also tells us that traditional humanities work, more than other fields, happens in isolation. Collaboration is relatively uncommon. Humanities scholars are in general therefore unused to navigating the sharing of credit or open sourcing of work, and may have anxieties around the implications of doing so to their academic identities.

Taken together, this reads to me like the traditional humanities may have a case of impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome, per Wikipedia (deliberately chosen as a source, as it was in the reading), is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”

Let the record show I do not think the humanities are fraudulent. Only that they seem to be behaving in an overly fearful and slightly neurotic way. How to alleviate this counterproductive mindset?

Fitzpatrick exhorts the reader to embrace an elevation of the community product and good over that of any individual. The traditional humanities may be happy to realize that working collaboratively balances the risks to any one individual. With the input and support of a community, loner scholars no longer need to fear being caught out. New methods can be seen as new opportunities for collaboration. The digital humanities cease to be a threat and become a new playing field.