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:
- 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.)
- 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.