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CAREER ADVICE

Introverts and the conference circuit

Many professors are introverts, but teaching conferences don’t seem to recognize that fact.

By ADAM CHAPNICK | MAY 07 2014

Over the last decade, teaching and learning conferences have flourished across North America.

Whether it be the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) or the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) here in Canada, or the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD) or the Teaching Professor in the United States, there is no longer any shortage of academic communities dedicated to sharing and celebrating the scholarship of the more interactive side of academe.

That interactivity – between individual learners, teachers and students, and academic colleagues – is typically reflected in the structure of the conferences themselves. In my experience, most of them aggressively encourage, if not require, audience participation in every session.

These gatherings also tend to include meals as part of their fees. Participants dine communally, with some tables organized specifically to foster discussions on particular conference themes.

Ironically, however, when taken too far, that openness can easily create the most isolating, if not in fact threatening, environment for certain conference participants.Anecdotally, and certainly in my experience, these gatherings are also significantly more open and friendly than typical discipline-specific scholarly meetings. The so-called “stars” are just as interested in speaking to graduate students as they are to senior colleagues. And participants are genuinely delighted to meet first-time attendees.

For some introverts, the exuberant friendliness of teaching and learning conferences can be overwhelming. As Susan Cain explains in her best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, one-third to one-half of North Americans “recharge their batteries by being alone,” a concept that would be unthinkable to extroverts – and, it appears, the majority of attendees at teaching and learning conferences – who seem to “need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.”

It’s not, then, that introverts are necessarily shy. Rather, it’s that we are often most comfortable in our own heads. We can be just as enthusiastic and engaged as an extrovert, but we get exhausted from such activity more easily.

The last time I went to a teaching and learning conference, I presented a paper in the first session, went to coffee to continue the conversation, attended and participated in a second session, and then it was time for lunch.

By that point, even though my lunch had already been paid for, I needed to get away. So I snuck off to the other side of campus, where I found an isolated fast food restaurant, pulled off my name tag, and kept happily to myself.

My actions were not meant to be critical of the conference organizers, nor was I trying to be anti-social in a derogatory sense. I simply knew that I had been “on” for too long and that I would struggle to be at my best for the rest of the day without a chance to be alone.

For all of their openness, if their organizers are not particularly sensitive, teaching and learning conferences can inadvertently create a stigma around introversion.

By making audience participation a sine qua non of every panel and workshop (one former conference attendee mentioned to me tongue-in-cheek that POD really stands for “participate or die”), by mandating that meals be held together and by implying, sometimes explicitly, that their openness is “better” than the exclusive vibe often felt at disciplinary meetings, they suggest that introversion is either unnatural, selfish or simply wrong.

And while I’d hate for teaching and learning conferences to lose their sense of community and openness to sharing, I think there are relatively simple ways to welcome introverts and extroverts alike. Here are two:

  1. When registering for conferences, for example, attendees should be asked to identify whether they are (1) graduate students, (2) first-time participants, and/or (3) in search of a mentor. If they answer yes in any case, they should be offered a mentor who will contact them before the conference and arrange to meet with them upon their arrival. These mentors will ensure that they are integrated into the community at a pace that is comfortable for them. (I have no doubt that teaching and learning conferences will be able to identify an overwhelming number of mentor volunteers.)
  2. Conference organizers should also continue to arrange thematic discussions at meal-time, but attendance should never be (all but) required. Introverts should not be asked, for all intents and purposes, to pay twice simply because they want to eat alone.

As much as I often dread certain aspects of teaching and learning conferences, I still find them valuable and worthwhile. But I am prone to cringe when they claim to be inclusive. A few small changes, not to mention greater acknowledgment of the legitimate physiological differences between introverts and extroverts, would go a long way to making the conference experience more fulfilling for introverts like me.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College.

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  1. Sean Lawrence / May 8, 2014 at 12:41

    I think the problem is beyond the organization of Teaching and Learning conferences to the assumptions that drive Teaching and Learning centres, and those interested in them.

    These (extroverted) assumptions also drive the call for greater interaction in classes, for an end to lecturing, for fewer individual writing assignments, and so forth. It even drives the lamentable tendency to destroy silent study space in libraries.

    Rather than praising introverts as good students, the modern university seems determined to make them as uncomfortable as possible.

  2. Peter Mazzacano / May 14, 2014 at 15:35

    Right on Adam! The place for introverts has been sadly neglected in academic circles for too long! As an introvert myself, I always felt uncomfortable when “participation” seemed to be mandatory. I have always felt that my own, best learning experiences came from absorbing quietly on my own. Forcing me to participate always made me feel uncomfortable, and always led to artificial responses.

  3. Eric / May 21, 2014 at 16:04

    Academe sometimes seems made for extroverts when often the qualities that got scholars to where they are (quiet study and solitary writing) are more in keeping with introversion.

  4. John / July 24, 2014 at 19:44

    I stopped going to teaching conferences for two reasons. The first was precisely because they became too interactive (sometimes pointlessly so). I wanted to sit quietly and hear a lecturer tell me what worked and didn’t work; I didn’t really want to ‘discover’ it doing an exercise that made me uncomfortable.

    The second reason has less to do with this article but does point to one problem with teaching conferences. I found the majority of enthusiastic teachers presenting on some wonderful teaching method had been using such a method for a very short time–once or twice–before wanting to tell the world about it. My own experience is that it takes much longer to know whether a given strategy works well as it takes a while for the weaknesses of a given method to appear. My advice for would-be-presenters is to wait a few years and refine the method before presenting a paper on it.

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