The down side of “fake it ’til you make it”

It’s not an uncommon sentiment to hear people encouraging each other with the saying “fake it ’til you make it.” Most of us would be paralyzed if we didn’t embrace it, but it’s recently occurred to me that there is a pretty major downside to it, and it may just be a contributing factor to the dreaded (and also common) impostor syndrome that plagues us.

I’m a few months into my study leave and have found myself paralyzed by my feeble attempts at understanding critical theory. As I’ve done for 10+ years now, I figured this would just be another hurdle I would stumble through somehow. Instead, I’ve anguished over concepts like the spatial triad as theorized by Henri Lefebvre. I’ve tried to understand social reproduction and reproductive labour over several sittings, only to find my mind wandering and abandoning my books and notes with that awful feeling of failure, that constant refrain in my head “you don’t get this stuff, you never will.” Over a pint, I confessed this self-loathing transgression to the kind ear of a friend who miraculously assured me that SHE FELT THE SAME WAY! She’d managed 20 pages of the Production of Space before re-shelving it with a snicker. This coming from a person who, to me, is an intellectual giant. And then she gave me what I really needed – reassurance that my ideas were good and that they bloody well didn’t need a theoretical framework to prop them up, that I should just get writing and see what comes out in the wash. Take THAT, academia.

I can list oodles of examples of how faking it has created FUD (and for those afraid to ask as I once was, that stands for fear, uncertainty, doubt) in my identity as a professional librarian. Among them, my persistent inability to distinguish between gold and green OA (seriously), my utter lack of comprehension of what OCLC actually does, and really, can someone please explain a triple to me again? Sure, I probably make other people feel better when I admit to my own vacuums in knowledge, but I think we really need to examine why we’ve created this culture where a significant number of us go about our business with half-hearted confidence, afraid to ask questions that we think we should already know the answer to even though we’ve never been given the chance to learn.

Sure, there’s the argument to be made that I don’t actually need to know what a triple is, but as librarians are expected to do more with less and juggle several different balls at once, we need to create a culture of openness and honesty where it’s okay to ask a question like “So, why doesn’t our discovery layer search everything when we call it Search Everything?”* Another example is our over-use of acronyms (see above re: FUD) and assumptions about models of governance. How many of us actually have a thorough understanding of how new programs are proposed and approved in our universities? How many of us can explain the hierarchies of administration and who makes what decision? And, don’t even get me started on general knowledge of data collection practices for the ranking and statistics we invest so much in. Budgets? Mysterious black holes. When we do finally learn some of these concepts, so often they defy documentation and they become innate institutional knowledge. You forget how you learned it in the first place, and are stumped when you need to pass it on. All of this, undoubtedly, leads to way more anguish than is healthy or necessary.

While “fake it ’til you make it” can certainly be an empowering way forward, I don’t think it’s necessarily the wisest maxim to continue repeating. We all need to slow down a little bit and ask whether or not we have covered the basics sufficiently. So, perhaps in the new year, we could all try a bit harder to ask questions without fear, document something you know how to do that you are pretty sure others don’t, and when you are presenting information, check your assumptions. I once spoke at a staff meeting about open source software. It occurred to me that very few people in the room likely knew what that was. So, I stopped, asked, and sure enough, most of them shrugged. I gave a 60 second explanation and we moved on. As librarians, we may know how to find all of the answers, but we really need to work on asking the questions.

*h/t to @archivalistic for this great example. Also, the (simplified) answer is because not all publishers have made their data available to/compatible with our discovery layer vendor.

4 thoughts on “The down side of “fake it ’til you make it”

  1. Diane M.

    Thank you so much for this piece!
    I’ve moved around a fair bit as an academic Librarian and I have seen varying degrees of “covering the basics” but mostly a lot of not covering the basics (“onboarding” is often sorely neglected but that’s a divergent topic.)
    There is so much obfuscating/ inflated/excluding language in academia. I never shy away from asking what an acronym stands for (and some may judge me for that ignorance or my faulty memory but I honestly don’t care.) Nevertheless my repeated questions (and my creation of an acronym glossary for my institution’s intranet) have sadly not changed anything in practice even within the forums I attend regularly. I find it disappointing when I see that lack of effort (which would be minimal) and consideration of the audience when speakers don’t take a minute to elaborate/define an acronym, or pause to interject a question to check the knowledge of a jargonistic or specialized term by those assembled. A brief explanation can only have a positive impact and if everyone in the room nods to say that “no explanation is required” the speaker merely ends up appearing considerate. Let’s all try to do better there.

    As for theory, I feel the pain of the irony of working in academia and supporting scholarship but often struggling myself with theoretical frameworks. I console myself by concluding that academia needs those who can apply theory (and hopefully also explain it in a widely accessible manner when appropriate) but it also needs pragmatic practitioners with good, relevant ideas and potential solutions. Collaboration of these 2 types can only lead to positive outcomes.

  2. Pingback: On being good enough | The Incidental Academic Librarian

  3. Leslie Kuo

    I really appreciate your honesty. I experience a lot of what you’re talking about because I only recently came to library work from another profession and am now working and doing my MLIS in a different country than where most of my experience as a patron and paraprofessional was. And talk about acronyms – any book on a library science subject I’ve read in Germany begins with multi-page list of acronyms. It’s been very helpful for me to cultivate a support network of classmates and colleagues whom I feel comfortable asking about something I wouldn’t necessarily want to interrupt a professor to ask about in front of a whole lecture hall. I also really appreciate the collaborative blog Hack Library School where people can share their concerns and frustrations about library school. And the professionals I’ve worked with so far have been very open to explaining concepts, software, policies, you name it. Maybe because things are changing so quickly in libraries today, most people I’ve worked with in Germany acknowledge that nobody can be on top of absolutely all the new developments and we should all help one another.


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