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Speculative Diction

This far, and no further: introverts, extroverts & the classroom “norm”


What I’m writing about today concerns no specific policy initiative or teaching strategy. It’s about pedagogy, and the ways in which psychology and social norms come to play significant roles in the way we behave and interpret the behaviours of others – in the classroom and in other academic settings.

The specific example I’m addressing is a recent upsurge in online discussion about introverts and extroverts. The most obvious trigger for this was publicity around the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (whose TED talk is available here).

I admit I find much of the discussion about “pros and cons” of these types frustrating; it feels like working within a binary schema that leads to a self-fuelling debate, since each “side” makes arguments that (often justifiably) annoy the others, who respond in their turn. And I don’t think Cain’s perspective gives us answers about how to address this underlying issue of “types”; it tends to draw on a discourse of introverts as oppressed and rejected by mainstream society, a perspective that isn’t helpful because it alienates extroverts and generalizes about everyone else.

Another recent article by William Pannapacker has tossed new fuel onto the fire for academics specifically. Pannapacker has angered many people with his argument that teaching style can be biased against introverted people – but then again, I know I could readily identify with what he seemed to be describing, particularly in terms of the ways that academic competitiveness requires confidence and social skills as well as focused, solitary bookishness. But I think that’s where Pannapacker makes an excellent point: he describes academe not as an environment that necessarily privileges either introverts or extroverts, but one in which we are required to vacillate competently between the two poles.

At this point I should probably reveal my own “type” – I’m an introvert, and on the Myers-Briggs test I always get the same result (INFJ). This result is apparently so undesirable that I’ve had people tell me, “I was that type but I reformed myself, and so can you!” So I was fascinated when I got into a lengthy Twitter discussion about this issue, with several others who were closer to the opposite end of the “spectrum.”

As “extremes” on an imagined scale, it’s clear that extroverts experience classroom discrimination as well, in very different ways. This is why I think the extremes are the real issue – they’re “pathologized,” made into a kind of illness to be cured (not just a problem to be corrected). A certain desired or imagined norm is being reflected through the ways in which deviance is disciplined (to use that lovely Foucauldian language).

So when we talk about introverts/extroverts, we’re always talking about something other than what is expected (or desired) – it’s an exception to an unwritten rule.

We can uncover the assumed norm by looking at what’s considered “abnormal”. Don’t like participating in games and social activities? Perhaps your “withdrawal” is part of a mental health problem; there’s “help” for that (SSRIs and anxiety medications). Are you “acting up” in class, talking over everyone, practically jumping to your feet with questions? That could be a behavioural issue – maybe you’re narcissistic, perhaps you need some Ritalin, or we could shift you into a “special education” class until you can learn to sit down and be quiet. The point is that there’s a meridian of normalcy, and everything else is just a certain number of degrees closer to – or further from – that desired state of behaviour.

In the end, it’s only logical that we need a degree of social success to get by in life, since we share with other people a social world. As an introvert I can say that learning (teaching myself) how to be around people has been a long and difficult process with which there was no sympathy and little explicit help available. I did experience my personality type as something “wrong” with me, something that had to be corrected. Only now that I’ve met many others like me do I feel as if the way I “just am” is something that isn’t just “my problem.” But there are very extroverted people who feel the same way.

The classroom is a space where ideal behaviour is shaped and modelled; this goes for graduate school as well as kindergarten. Teaching does play a significant role is this, since teachers are assumed to model all kinds of behaviours (hence the cultural obsession with teachers and their “quality” – it is moral and political, not just academic).

For those of us teaching: what can we do, and can we work within this arrangement to ensure that those whose behaviour doesn’t fall within “normal” parameters are accepted, reassured and guided without being “policed”?

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / April 19, 2012 at 17:53

    Yes, teaching requires vacillation between introvert and extrovert behaviour. But I think that introverts won this war a long time ago. Introversion is, by far, the norm within academe, and it has been this way for awhile.

    The evidence is everywhere, whether in the heavy weight given to research output and publications, or in the lack of importance given to teaching experience and evaluations during hiring processes. I know maybe a half dozen extroverts in academe, and ten times as many who would rather avoid human contact altogether. The latter sees almost sees teaching as a burden, the price that has to be paid in order to be able to hide out in their offices and do research in solitude most of the time.

    As well, most research reflects this introversion – it is utterly parochial in nature, jargon-ridden, and not suitable for public audiences. Professors simply don’t perform – nor are they expected – to serve public functions anymore. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a professor interviewed on TV.

    And don’t get me started about introvert fashion….

  2. Bon / April 19, 2012 at 19:45

    perhaps it’s because i test borderline E/I on the Myers-Briggs, but YES! that this whole conversation seems to reduce a field of people otherwise capable of complex thought to binary, defensive caricatures is kind of fascinating.

    academic practices are varied, and privilege different types of behaviours in different contexts. the classic elbow-patch Oxbridge stereotype of the fusty professor is probably more introverted…the contemporary neoliberal environment in which higher ed swims may bring some extraverted features to the fore: i would say that for those of us looking to become professors, the job may be easier not just if we can get out and hustle for ourselves, but if we don’t require massive amounts of quiet time to recover our energy and think, as those really aren’t on the table these days.

    but most of us are a mix of both. introverted and extraverted characteristics have contexts. i used to be more extraverted in my professional and research lives before i had kids. at the same time, in the same timeframe, i’ve been far more immersed in the language of successful neoliberal self-talk.

    thanks for trying to drag the conversation back from the extremes so we can consider the demands of our profession.

  3. John Davidson / April 20, 2012 at 07:53

    The topic of introversion has long attracted me as I identify with that. I am about to pick up a copy of “Quiet; the Power of Introverts” from the reserve shelf at HPL. Somehow I stumbled into selling as a career. In selling there is a theory involving personalities which they break down into 4 basic types (with lots of combinations and strengths). They encourage you to determine which one you fit into and then advise that you will in fact better develop rapport (a term I think would be useful for teaching). To be successful in sales (I am not particularly) you need to be able to get out of your comfort zone. They of course suggest that as you can identify the personality types of your prospects you can understand them better and adapt your approach. Many years ago I had been a supply teacher and of course had been a student and now am the father of a want to be teacher pursuing his career in New Zealand I do appreciate the similarities between teaching someone and trying to persuade someone to buy something. You have to bend your personality and empathize with the person you are dealing with. The information or viewpoint you are trying to impart is the same, but your method has to adapt to the circumstances. My motive for wanting to read the book is really to help justify why I am who I am, but I would like to think the book is objective. That is another example of adapting, to make allowances for the viewpoint of an author. I enjoyed your take.