I'm just downloading Susan Cain's book onto my iPad after listening to her talk at TED. It was one of those amazing moments where I really learned something about myself.
I'm an introvert. I think many academics probably are. It makes sense, doesn't it? We were often the children who liked to read a book rather than play sport. Yet I always felt pushed to be an extrovert.
Cain's comments about our teaching environments really caught my attention though. I've often 'inherited' subjects that involve 'class participation' marks. These have always made me uneasy and I've often dropped this assessment from the subject when I've had the chance. While I like students to get involved in discussion and experience frustration when no one talks, I've also been perfectly happy if some students choose not to talk.
Because, the thing is, they may not talk, but that doesn't mean they aren't listening and thinking and those are equally important aspects of participation. They're aspects that can't be reliably assessed as participation, that's all.
In school, I very rarely raised a hand to answer a question. When the teacher would try to prompt a response from me, I'd go blank and look a great deal like a deer stuck in the headlights. The teacher would inevitably be confused. My grades were good. I obviously knew things - I obviously thought a lot. Why didn't I contribute? It's simple really. I was absorbed in thinking about what everyone else was saying. I was contemplating. I wasn't ready to say what I thought. So I've always had sympathy for students who don't like to talk in class.
Moreover, as the tutor or the lecturer, I myself am paying attention to the discussion - I'm listening, I'm thinking about what's said. I'm not always paying attention to who is talking and who isn't. This makes it very difficult for me to sit down afterwards and assess participation. If I'm paying attention to who is talking and who isn't, I'm frustrated, because I really want to follow what's happening in the discussion itself. I also don't want to interrupt that discussion to ask 'Betty' a question just because 'Betty' hasn't spoken in three weeks. 'Betty' might simply not have anything to say yet. That's okay by me. I hope she will have something to say at some point and I hope I can create an environment where she'll feel able to say something about what she's thinking, but I don't want to put her on the spot. I know how it feels.
This is not to say that class participation works the same way in every group, for every teacher. It's just that, for me, class participation is stressful and unnatural.
On the other side of the coin, I create reading groups. I encourage my students to make time to talk to each other. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a group of students talking over coffee (okay, I'm lying, there are other things that make me happier, but you know what I mean). The time I spend in reading groups or talking to students and colleagues is wonderful and inspiring. However, as Cain points out, introverts do like to share ideas, to talk and discuss. It's just that we need time to be alone, to contemplate too.
I usually excuse my habits of avoiding my office on my restlessness, my need to play music loudly, my inability to focus in an office. Really, it's just that I'm an introvert. I need my own space to think and write. I could shut the door and put a sign up, but I'd feel caged in. I like to walk around, play music, make a cup of tea. My biggest breakthroughs in thought have often occurred when I'm picking tomatoes or when waiting for the kettle to boil or going to collect the mail. I then have the freedom to rush back to a pen or the keyboard and jot everything down before I lose it.
So, I'd encourage people to listen to Cain's talk and really think about the positive contribution introverts make. We do live in a society that values the extrovert and tries to turn introverts into extroverts. I hope as she suggests, this might be changing.