Im(poster) Syndrome


There’s a mixed metaphor jostling around in my head (as usual) and I’m afraid we’re gonna have to humor it.

The metaphor pertains to pencils, posters, and symbiosis. Specifically, it begins with a phrase plastered to my Sunday school’s wall (centered between a JFK quote and the windows).

Pencils stand shoulder to shoulder on a black background. One is dull, the rest are newly sharpened. The moral: surround yourself with who you want to be. This is commensalism: one member of a group benefiting while others experience net zero effect.

Reading through the introductory posts of my fellow fellows, many of whom I have been lucky enough to meet during breakout sessions at our weekly Tuesday morning Zooms, I began to identify with the lone dull pencil. After all, my peers possess an amazing array of skills and accreditations. Within my cohort, Ian Pamerleau has a combined mastery of jazz, fencing, and physics – easily three of the most intimidating disciplines – while Emily Wolfe demonstrates next-level community engagement by tutoring refugees. 

Some projects center on fields with which I have limited familiarity (like bio- anything). Others land closer to my home in the social sciences, but even those pose their own challenges. Ryan Steinly’s work with non-English language access and immigration resources in PA blows my proposal out of the water in terms of real-world applicability, while Keith Robben’s study of anarchist activity following the Industrial Revolution is just objectively way cooler.

As if that wasn’t daunting enough, then Charlie Taylor has to go dropping “gender after 9/11 and heterosexuality as a form of patriotism.” Chills.

I know that the Brackenridge Fellowship embraces breadth. Dr. Say makes few demands, but one is that equal respect be accorded to the research done in every field by every fellow. Nonetheless, having been raised in a society that deifies competition, we sometimes struggle to turn off the voices in our head which measure our success relative to the success of others. We ask ourselves, “What do I contribute?” In an academic community as strong, passionate, and varied as the Brackenridge Fellowship, such questions can paralyze us.

Which brings us to the second poster.

Here, pencils stand shoulder to shoulder once again. One pencil is broken. The rest are newly sharpened. Despite the visual similarity, this second poster makes a slightly different point. Its caption reads “INDIVIDUALITY: Just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re useful.” 

Now, I doubt that this poster hangs in any classrooms. You’ll notice that the image originates from third-string meme generator Still, it shows up near the top when you search “pencil motivational poster” and it highlights the feelings of inadequacy that can come with collaboration. 

When we surround ourselves with talented people, we sometimes start imagining parasitism, a form of symbiosis wherein one member of a group benefits at the expense of others. What if resources invested in my research could have been better spent on smarter, cooler, more useful research? What if I’m dragging down the average just by being here?

Many academic settings feed into that anxiety in the name of Competition. Thankfully, the Brackenridge Fellowship encourages a mutualism mindset more in line with the third and (I promise) final poster.

The third poster employs the same “odd man out” structure. Three sharp pencils, one deviant. Except this time, the deviation takes the form of an upside-down pencil with full eraser. This trite wall art speaks volumes to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. Graphite pencils and erasers achieve their full potential only when combined.

In that spirit of beneficial deviation, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce a slight shift in my research. I’m still investigating candidate self-presentation, it’s just the methodology, population, and end result of my project that have changed. From here on out, I will be leveraging the Center for American Politics and Design database to analyze identity cues in Congressional campaign signage. It’s a slick database and I’m excited to broaden its capabilities. 

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