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Monday, November 07, 2005

Mandatory extroversion

I'd wager that there are more introverts than extroverts in academia--or at least more introverts in academia than there are in the general population--which means that there are a lot of teachers out there projecting a classroom persona that isn't entirely natural.

I enjoy performing, and I have this wacky persona that I slip into when I'm in that mode, but on the days that I teach three classes (and am thus standing at the front of a classroom for four full hours), I'm almost dead by the time I crawl onto the train. During that break before my last class of the day--my longest, and my least favorite--I have to actively psyche myself up, reminding myself that I'M the one who has to bring the energy to the room and set the tone, and just that prep work can be tiring. It's like running around backstage making sure all the props are in place and the hem of one's costume not falling down.

I suspect that my students, if they were ever to think about it, would say that I must be an extrovert--because, after all, I'm the one up there cracking jokes and directing traffic, and who could be comfortable with that if they were constitutionally shy?

I'm certainly less shy than I used to be, but it continually surprises me that I don't, apparently, project the impression of shyness. No one who knows me well would call me an extrovert, but acquaintances actually sometimes do--and in fact, one just did: at my conference the other week the subject of introversion and extroversion came up, and I mentioned that George Washington Boyfriend and I are total opposites: he's a classic extrovert and I'm a classic introvert. When I said this, one of the more boistrous of the attendees just threw his head back and started laughing: "Oh, YOU'RE an introvert! You! That's a riot." And, okay, so I was sassing much older and more important people, kicking back the drinks, and egging people on in their silly stunts--but I was back in my hotel room before 11 every night.

I remember coming across an article in college--I think it was in The New Yorker, and I think it was a profile of some mid-20th-century actor--in which the author said something like, "like many actors, [Name] was actually a deeply shy person, who expressed himself most freely when wearing the mask of a fictional character." I don't remember anything else about the article, but I remember being struck by that sentence and its expression of an idea that seemed both entirely novel (actors, shy?) and entirely true. It was probably my first encounter with what could loosely be called performance theory, and it went a long way toward explaining some of my own behavior to myself.

Tiring or not, this is one more reason that I wouldn't wish away any one of my thirty years: it's taken me this long to learn how to control, manage, and take pleasure in this self that I project.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 11:51 PM |


Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 8:32 AM~  

Oh how I understand this post! I could have written it, in fact, every word of it. I think that many successful people might be constitutionally introverted but know that they have to *act* extroverted in order to be successful. I have a journalist friend who says exactly that, actually. And for those of us who know her, it's easy to tell when she's acting -- her voice is different (like a "phone voice").

I think on those psychological tests there are scales for this sort of personality. Many successful academics might actually be "extroverted introverts," that is, most happy in the quiet, solitary pursuits, but capable of performing when necessary.

Does that make sense? I haven't had caffeine yet this morning (and one thing I'm not is a morning person)!

Blogger What Now? commented at 12:50 PM~  

I've now been teaching long enough that I don't even notice when I go into my teacher mode, but I do remember being completely exhausted the first term in which I taught three classes in a day; I would just crawl home at the end of the day, and the first week I actually went to bed by 8:00 those nights because I was worn out.

When I feel this exhaustion most now is working with student clubs. Outside of the formal structure of the classroom, the social interactions with students feel so forced. And I still haven't adopted an entirely comfortable personal for those times; the "self" I put on is too bubbly, too bright and cheerful and witty, and it completely wears me out. I always have a bad taste in my mouth after those interactions, and I need to develop an extrovert persona that works well for those situations.

Blogger jo(e) commented at 2:38 PM~  

I am an extrovert so teaching energizes me. It's those days spent at home in front of the computer, quietly working, or worse, grading papaers, that wear me out ....

Anonymous Astroprof commented at 5:36 PM~  

I guess that I am an introvert by nature. My first lecture (other than as a lab TA in grad school) was to a class of 150 students. Talk about feeling uncomfortable! Now, though I am still sort of introverted at parties, etc, I am comfortable lecturing in front of huge classes, giving public talks, and even doing TV interviews (there aren't THAT many professional astronomers around here, so the few of us around get calls for interviews now and then when something happens). So, in my field I appear as an extrovert.

Blogger phd me commented at 5:43 PM~  

I'd wager that there are more introverts than extroverts in academia.

Good call, LL; I'd back you up on that one. Most (not all) of the teachers I know, public school or university, are introverts, but they pull out this "teacher self" when they get in front of students.

I'm definitely an introvert and that probably comes through in my teaching. Even though I'm energetic and very responsive to students, even slightly goofy at times, I still need my space.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 6:17 PM~  

Dr. V, I like the idea of the "extroverted introvert" very much--there's definitely a considerable range within the category of introvert, from "totally socially incompetent" to "the life of the party, at least, a small party, at least, for a couple of hours" (which I can sometimes come close to). Likewise with the extrovert: though GWB is a total extrovert, he's not loud or dramatic or an attention-hog, and he likes alone time nearly as much as I do (although I think he *needs* it much less).

Blogger Dean Dad commented at 6:22 AM~  

I think I remember that article -- if it's the same one, it was about Steve Martin.

You're dead-on, though I've long thought that the paradox of introverts being good on stage has to do with stage fright, and the relative lack of feedback on stage. Extroverts thrive on feedback; they love the give-and-take of unstructured group interaction. Introverts (of which I am a card-carrying one) find the feedback of unstructured groups overwhelming, but don't find stage fright quite so daunting. The relative lack of feedback on stage actually helps us, since we can select what to notice and what not to. And stage fright is less paralyzing for us, since we have a low-grade version of it pretty much all the time.

I'm more at ease in front of a division meeting of 80 faculty than at a party of 25. That's my only explanation.

Great topic!

Blogger Chas S. Clifton commented at 10:22 AM~  


I understand what you're saying, including the quotation about the actor. A lot of us are introverts, but we learn to create a jolly classroom persona.

The key is when you say that it tires you out: it seems to me that the introvert can project the persona, but is tired out at the end of the performance, whereas the extrovert is energized by the crowd.

I'm getting ready to head for a big academic conference--probably 8,000 people or so--and I'm taking my list of used bookstores in the conference city for when *I* need to go recharge.

Chas Clifton

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