Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tyranny of the Extroverts?

I just finished reading "Screening Out the Introverts," a Chronicle of Higher Education Advice essay by William Pannapacker (Hope College). The essay is now several months old, but given that it's the start of a new academic year and the beginning of the hiring season, I wanted to spotlight it.

The inspiration behind the piece was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain:
The book is a hybrid work of cultural history, advocacy, personal narrative, and persuasive self-help. . . . 
Most notably, Cain argues for the value of introverts in a culture that has a long history of privileging extroversion—something, she argues, that has only grown more powerful, and perhaps costly, in recent decades
Here's a bit more:
We now live under a kind of extrovert tyranny, Cain writes, and that has led to a culture of shallow thinking, compulsory optimism, and escalating risk-taking in pursuit of success, narrowly defined. In other words, extroverts—amplifying each other's groundless enthusiasms—could be responsible for the economic crisis because they do not listen to introverts, even when there are some around (and they are not trying to pass as extroverts). 
If that's stretching matters, it seems harder to deny that the routine exclusion and silencing of talented, quiet people has costs just like other forms of arbitrary discrimination. And, Cain argues, the extrovert idea is discriminatory on the basis of ethnicity, particularly against those who share the Asian cultural ideal of speaking less and thinking more.
Pannapacker (a professor of English) then brings Cain's insights to bear on academic life, which many people believe to be a haven for "studious introverts":
Introverts . . . may find themselves suddenly underperforming as graduate students. Cain writes about seminars at the Harvard Business School in which students are expected to leap into discussions, unprompted, and find ways to hold the spotlight, regardless of whether they have anything to add to the conversation. . . .
But graduate seminars are just the beginning. There are countless social events and networking opportunities that introverts find exhausting. Many of those events are characterized by elaborate social rules governing behavior and the appropriate topics of conversation. . . . Over time, introverted students face a huge relative disadvantage in the reach of their professional networks.
Pannapacker goes on to discuss the challenges that introverts face as new teachers and entry-level job applicants. He concludes with a set of questions:
Should academe be concerned that it loses many of its introverted graduate students? . . . Does selecting for extroverts favor a cult of charismatic leadership: a star system? Is Cain correct in her view that a profession that sorts out introverts selects for unwarranted enthusiasms for, say, the latest theories, technologies, and institutional practices without considering the consequences? . . .  
I wonder how those who tend toward introversion—perhaps the majority of people who aspire to academic careers—have coped with those demands. And what can institutions do to serve their needs more effectively?
As someone much closer to an "I" than an "E" on the introvert-extrovert spectrum (you can take Susan Cain's diagnostic quiz here), I can attest that one can learn to act like an "E" when the situation demands it. Had I not, I probably could have made it through grad school and law school. But I don't think I would have done well on the job market. Should I and others like me use our positions as teachers, graduate advisers, and members of hiring committees to push back against "extrovert tyranny"? Should we demand accommodation, resources, or support?

I have mixed feelings. Yes, the skills that come naturally to extroverts are a "must" in this line of work, but I believe that my introvert tendencies -- loving long, isolated days in the archives, being able to concentrate amid chaos -- have been equally valuable. In my view, academia continues to recognize and reward the products of introversion. To go one step further, I suspect that if a graduate student complained to me that he or she simply could not endure the loneliness of archival research or loathed the exercise of listening (an introvert strength, according to Cain), I would be unsympathetic. I would likely counsel a career change. In the academy that I've come to know (my more senior colleagues would know better), all personality types must make some adjustments. We call this job "the best job in the world" because we are amazingly fortunate to do this work, but also because it is a job. There are parts of it that, to each of us, will always feel like work.

What do you all think? Does Pannapacker's essay make you think differently about admissions or hiring? Might it change the way that you fulfill your responsibilities as a teacher or graduate adviser? If nothing else, it reminded me that bias functions in numerous and subtle ways. We would do well to interrogate them all.