Teaching, introversion, and academia

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

I recently read this article titled “Screening out the Introverts” about introverts as teachers and the whole question of “why?” that introverted teachers sometimes get from students after talking about introversion/extroversion with the class and, essentially, doing a kind of “coming out” to them. (Though I always assume they can pretty much guess my personality type, but perhaps I am wrong. I’ve been told in certain circumstances that I “talk a lot.”)

There is a passage I particularly liked and related to well in here, though I related well to many:

A few sympathetic students tried to persuade me that my introvert result was a mistake. How could I stand in front of that room, leading that very conversation, smiling at them, without being an extrovert? The answer: careful planning, acting, and rationing my public appearances. Also, my introversion fades when I become comfortable with unfamiliar people (the first weeks of classes are a strain).

The above is pretty much how I get through life. 🙂 It isn’t just in teaching where I find myself “standing in front of a room,” after all. As an academic, I give multiple presentations a year that are not necessarily me in my role of teacher. I also have a rich life, believe it or not, outside of academia where I find myself in social situations that require various types of socialization and performance abilities. Basically, I need to talk to people and so I do and as a strong introvert, I honestly dislike talking to people I don’t know well. I have a few close friends and those people I will talk to quite a bit. In fact, I tend to talk to the point it might drive them half-crazy, or they may say that I am “talking their ear off” to use a popular idiom. The reason why I talk so much is because I know them and probably have known them for quite some time. Hence I am incredibly (and perhaps sometimes too) comfortable.

The last part of that quote, the comment about how it takes weeks to get comfortable with a class, is so painfully true to me. Those first few weeks are strenuous because as a teacher, you already have to show that authority. That has to come immediately, and I do have tricks for this (for example, I tend to “lay down the law” pretty quickly and I have had students tell me that I “scared them” in the first few weeks because I seemed “very strict.” I explained how I have to do that in order to gain authority, and they understood completely. They know I am not really that way. Embarrassingly, I am a softie. I even cry easily.) But even while I am acting all tough, it is just an act. And during that performance, I am working on simply getting comfortable with all of them in the room so that I can forge on and outwardly be more of who I am with them later on. (This seems all badly explained to me, but whatever. It is the end of the semester and I have other things on my mind right now.)

But it is frustrating to be an introvert in academia. People tend to create rumors about you (and there is no greater place for rumors than an English department.) In reality, if you want to know something about me, ask. I will probably tell you what you wish to know. Sometimes I honestly make things up about myself to see how far rumors go. (It is a hilarious experiment, really, and if you wish to be entertained, try it. Great fun!) People also tend to paint you as the following: weird, socially awkward, quiet (I am, but not always. Trust me.), misanthropic (a little reductive, don’t you think?), or just generally deviant in some way. Introverts, by the larger group, are never seen to be the person they really are. Is this unfortunate? yes, but it is unavoidable given the way introverts interact with their social groups.

At the end of the article, the author asks about how introverts cope with the demands of academia, assuming we all cope differently, and I suppose we do. We are all individuals and so we are all different. So this led me to think about how I cope with it. Here is a short list (and it is probably very short. I apologize.):

  • I avoid large group get togethers for the most part. Large groups are exhausting and usually those large groups are filled with people I normally do not associate much with. Why use that energy? I occasionally make exceptions, but not usually. I do this because a. I am not interested in being friends with everyone  (I know enough people) and b. if I am being social, I’d rather use that energy with people I enjoy being around. I know extroverts would see this as very limiting, but it really isn’t to someone like me. So sorry if you see it that way. (I do talk to strangers, by the way, but that is mostly small talk and I avoid small talk.)
  • I am selective about the friends I make. I know that may sound harsh. It is the way it is. And I think most people function similarly.
  • I set aside time to be alone and set aside time to be social. I stick with these times.
  • I give myself time to think about questions and discussions that occur in class. To be honest, class is this time for me to take in information and use it later. Class is almost like recreation for me because I listen to a lot of ideas and thoughts and let them stew in my mind for a while. Then I’ll write about them somewhere. And I am not alone in feeling this way. I’ve read articles about how people, such as musicians, use concert practice and other group practices as recreation. They enjoy the time and learn from it, but think of the real work being the work they do alone (individual practice and so on). I am the same way, only with writing and my other classwork. So though I see it as recreational, I am not being lazy or relaxed. I am thinking the whole time and taking the information I need to think about and use later on.
  • I eat lunch alone most of the time. I teach during lunch time and so when I get lunch it is also time to “get away.” And this actually works out really well for me.

I am going to end with the following quote from the article I linked to above:

Should academe be concerned that it loses many of its introverted graduate students? Do they not have something to contribute? Does selecting for extroverts favor a cult of charismatic leadership: a star system? Is Cain correct in her view that a profession that sorts out introverts selects for unwarranted enthusiasms for, say, the latest theories, technologies, and institutional practices without considering the consequences? Does it foster a winner-take-all system in which compassion and sensitivity have no place?

I think those questions are good ones. And to better explain the Cain question, what she talks about in her book is that people listen to those who are talking the most and/or most admire the things that are new instead of taking time to consider if it is useful, if it works, if it is realistic and so on. As someone who comes from the working class, I can tell you that our academic institutions only support classism and have unrealistic views of technological access. (Yes, I can certainly back this up if you are interested.) But of course, we have trouble admitting to this because so few people in academia seem to have experience with being in poverty, just as how few people have experience of being a more introverted person in a world that doesn’t value listening as much as it should or could or misunderstands why quieter people aren’t the ones talking.

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