What am I doing? Why did I get into this?
In recent days, I have found myself asking these rhetorical questions about my foray into public-facing scholarship. I have learned that whenever I engage in these big-picture, existential questions, I can usually point to some kind of internal conflict or dissonance.
In the acclaimed documentary The Color of Fear1, one of the characters, David Lee, describes his own internal conflict using the analogy of two “tapes” inside his head: “I mean, there’s a tape in the back of my head that plays back all the time. But there’s another tape that I’ve developed also—that says, ‘This isn’t true.’” [48:40 mark]
Although this statement is made about racial stereotypes, I would like to extend this notion of two tapes – two dissonant narratives – that continue to wage a battle inside my head regarding public-facing work. Put differently, I have some immediate reactions that I have internalized, and then a counter to each of those reactions. Drawing from counseling language, I would say that there are some assumptions about public scholarship that I am learning to unlearn. Yet another way to describe this would be to say that there are certain cognitive and emotional barriers that academics can experience about public scholarship, including Christian academics, and that certain reframes have been helpful to overcome those barriers.
In this blog post, I would like to reflect on two levels where the dissonance or conflict is most acutely felt on my part: individual and cultural layers.
At the individual level, the imposter syndrome is real. Like many of my academic peers, I did not take a graduate class in how to write for a more general audience. In fact, I don’t ever recall a single conversation with anyone in graduate school about scholarship outside of the peer-reviewed outlets of my academic guilds. As such, all of my scholarship endeavors were in the peer-reviewed, empirical realm not only during graduate school, but also for a good 10+ years of my career as a professor.
Related to imposter syndrome is the feeling of being psychologically exposed in front of other people; others who do not know me personally but could now peer into a part of my soul through my written work. When I published an op-ed in the Seattle Times on anti-Asian racism, the laughing emoji responses to the article when posted on social media were more than enough for me to steer clear of the written comments (by the way, the irony of making a case for the validity of racialized experiences of Asians and Asian Americans, only to have some folks laugh at it as a further invalidation, was not lost on me).
What has been the counter to the imposter syndrome and closely related feeling of increased vulnerability?
To address the feelings of inadequacy, I began by honestly naming the reality that I was not formally trained for public-facing scholarship. In a recent interview on my Teaching Cross-Cultural Psychology podcast, prominent psychologist David Myers articulated having a similar kind of realization as he shifted to more public writing, and how the realization freed him up to seek out assistance and coaching from others in changing his writing style.
Like David, I have intentionally pursued mentoring and coaching opportunities to improve my public-facing work. Some of this process has been through direct feedback on my writing, not only from professional peers, but also from my undergraduate students; I swallowed my pride as a professor and have been asking my students to provide feedback on how I was coming across in my book chapter drafts intended for college students. How many of us professors can say that our own students have marked all over our work with the proverbial “red ink”? I have also received consultation and training on purposeful and effective dissemination of my scholarship.
To address the fear of being in a public space, I have countered with the obvious but sometimes forgotten reminder to myself that there will always be folks who disagree with me. Maybe even those who will say things that will intentionally or unintentionally invalidate or insult my experiences. To be able to accept this reality cognitively has been a slow but important area of growth for me. I still get nervous trying to look through comment sections of written pieces, and I do think there is wisdom in not engaging vitriolic comments online. But I have made it an effort to respond to well-intentioned comments from those who disagree with me, including on my CSR blog posts; it does help that CSR readers tend to be grace-filled and kind when commenting.
At a cultural level, two prominent cultural identities of mine – Korean and Christian – converge to shape my internal struggles about public-facing work. In both Korean (and Asian) and Christian contexts, humility is highly emphasized (see this CSR blog post for more on humility in Asian cultures). This is why the saying, “the nail that stands out gets pounded down” is intimately familiar to me, and why “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is cognitively understood as necessary in my individualistic U.S. context but difficult to live up to consistently (for more on cultural emphases underlying these two quotes, see work by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama2).
Indeed, in my Korean and Christian upbringing, humility was taught as if it was synonymous to self-effacement – the erasing of the self – and that any other postures that go against such effacing were arrogant. Philippians 2:3 was often cited to declare why the self should be placed below others. Closely related to humility is the cultural value of conformity to norms, or the expectation that boundaries will not be pushed. Moreover, as an Asian living in the United States, I have internalized some aspects of the model minority stereotype3 that says that the ideal way for me to be an Asian American scholar is to put my head down and excel within the bounds of what I do – traditional academic work.
As a result of internalizing these values and expectations, I am susceptible to feeling like public-facing scholarship is in opposition to values such as humility – much of making my work accessible involves the overt promotion of my work; that I am precariously “pushing the envelope” in a way that challenges the neat boundary lines drawn by conformity to norms and internalized model minority stereotype.
Obviously, there is a lot here to deconstruct in terms of cultural influences that can serve as barriers to public-facing work. But one counter narrative that has been helpful for me is to remind myself of another important Christian virtue – service to others. Public-facing work has allowed me to serve other people in a way that my peer-reviewed work has not. And service to others (1 Peter 4:10) – as a way to love my neighbors near and far (Mark 12:31), and as a way to engage in justice work (Micah 6:8) – is an effective reframe whenever I think about the vocational purpose behind my public-facing work.
Moreover, I have experimented with different ways that my scholarship can elevate the voice of others. One approach has been to feature the work of other scholars in my work. My Teaching Cross-Cultural Psychology podcast features prominent scholars speaking about their innovative DEI scholarship and pedagogy from a Christian perspective. By design, these episodes are intended to elevate the voices of others over mine. Practically speaking, that means that, in each episode, I aim for about 30 percent of my voice, and 70 percent of guests’. I would argue that this is a practical way for me to live into the calling in Philippians 2:3 to “value others above yourselves.”
I must admit, countering conformity to norms and the internalized model minority stereotype is the biggest area of growth for me as I continue in my public-facing work. I am praying for consistent boldness, and perhaps even a healthy dose of a rebellious spirit, to push back on generalizations about my Asian identity (e.g., model minority stereotype) and to continually stretch the boundaries set by my own communities and their expectations (e.g., conformity to norms).
In closing, I realize that my story is, well, mine, and not necessarily generalizable to the experiences of all Christian academics trying to make their work reach a broader audience. And perhaps, for some folks who are much more seasoned in this work than I am, any dissonance has been resolved. But I do hope and pray that what I shared in this post can serve as an example of the kind of introspective reflection that Christian scholars can engage in, whenever they feel uncertain about their own work in the public sphere; and additionally, that they would be able to reframe their self-doubts with counters (that second “tape”) that can help rejuvenate their sense of calling to this work.
What are some of your own “tapes” when it comes to public-facing work? How are you working through them?
- The Color of Fear, directed by Lee Mun Wah (1994; Ukiah, CA: StirFry Seminars, 1994), DVD.
- Hazel R. Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation,” Psychological Review 98, no. 2 (1991): 224–253.
- Hyung Chol Yoo, Kimberly S. Burrola, and Michael F. Steger, “A Preliminary Report on a New Measure: Internalization of the Model Minority Myth Measure (IM-4) and its Psychological Correlates Among Asian American College Students,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 57, no. 1 (2010): 114-127.