Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m an introvert.
Maybe I should say that a little more loudly?
If we’re dealing in the popular discourse that has developed around introversion and extroversion, introverts are people who crave quiet time alone to recharge their batteries, work through problems, and formulate ideas. Extroverts, on the other hand, are energized by interaction with others and process information quickly in group environments. A decade ago, Jonathan Roach wrote this somewhat humorous (and introvert-celebrating) essay about caring for your introvert in The Atlantic. Of course, as academics, we’ve been trained to be suspicious of binaries and essentialism, so maybe it’s more helpful to think of a continuum of extroverted-ness and introverted-ness. Or think of introversion and extroversion as situational, with some people finding some social situations more draining, or more electrifying, than others.
Anyway, as someone who considers herself high in introverted-ness, I was recently surprised to find myself wondering about the ways in which my pedagogical techniques might inadvertently be skewed toward those with more extroverted tendencies. Susan Cain’s book Quiet initially got me questioning whether our culture, and specifically the culture we’re most involved in shaping—the college classroom—is largely set up for extroverts to succeed, at the expense of their more introverted peers. Although I wouldn’t categorize myself as restrained or retiring as a teacher, I considered how I’ve been facilitating an increasing amount of group work and conversation in my classes, expecting students to pair up quickly and talk through concepts frequently with their peers. Which is good, right? Students working through ideas together is what the classroom is all about? But I also wonder if my own introverted-ness leads me to favor modes of learning that take some of the spotlight off of me? Furthermore, does the breadth of the material I need to cover in an introductory course lead me to privilege quick answers to questions, rather than the slower and possibly more thoughtful ones? Have I trained myself to respond more readily to the fast answer in the classroom rather than the insightful one?
Much more crucial than my own interrogation of my teaching is the question of how we can best help introverted students to become strong communicators. One of the more striking anecdotes I came across in reading about introversion is that many self-identifying introverts feel they express themselves better in writing than speaking. Social media is thus a popular place for introverts to communicate because they can do it through writing. But even with the increasing use of social media in learning, classes today still place heavy emphasis on participation and group communication, reflecting the communication skills that potential employers expect their employees to have. Especially in the public speaking course I teach, there’s just no way for students to avoid talking in class. I thought of Peter Elbow’s book, Vernacular Eloquence, which is brilliant in exploring the ways that speaking can help our writing. Is there an inverse: can we help introverts to use their writing skills and their comfort in that medium to help them with speaking?
This semester I’m attempting to become more aware of my introverted students and give them some techniques to succeed in a variety of environments. I’m trying out more time for free writing before discussions. Even if I have that one student who is ready to answer the question right away, I’m allowing at least a little more time for others to reflect. I’ve built formal reflection into each of the assignments they’re doing this semester, giving those who feel more comfortable going away to think and write the opportunity to write about their in-class presentations. Finally, I’m experimenting with providing more structure, “scripts” one might say, for talking in small groups that give a clear framework for the discussion to follow (although I relate to the fear of micromanaging mentioned in Julia’s post, and strive to find a balance between keeping students on track and allowing them freedom to discover.)
Do you find it useful to think in terms of extroverted and introverted students? What do you do to reach the more introverted students in your classes? Also, how do you evaluate participation: attendance, speaking in class, writing? Do we need to re-envision classroom dynamics to consider the strengths of both introverts and extroverts?