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There’s a Visible Place for Introverts in Academia

On why grad students should embrace the quiet scholars within them, even if it makes people nervous.

November 11, 2018
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson recently earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

In between sessions at a teaching conference I attended recently, a fellow participant – a gregarious stranger whom I’d never never seen before – sidled over to my table to loudly call me out for being "so quiet." I immediately looked up at her and then around the room to see why I was the oddball she singled out. I was a bit startled because I was just another attendee who was taking notes, looking at her cell phone or gazing at the others assembled in the room.

I had my most erudite response ready. No doubt it was a good one because it was forged by fearlessness gained from time spent presenting original scholarship to new academic audiences, peers, and colleagues, and from instructing and advising legions of undergraduates; it was shaped by the trial-by-fire confidence that emerged from overcoming advisers’ stinging but constructive research critiques and from surviving long months of dense quantitative research.

Why, I’d proved my mettle!

I’d just begun formulating the words that would clearly say not to mistake my silence for weakness or lack of confidence.  

My retort would be incisive: “I’m not quiet. I’m cerebral.”

But before I could actually verbalize what I was thinking, the stranger had moved on.

I had a brief flash of anger. This stranger’s spontaneous, transitory analysis made me wonder why being “quiet” or being an introvert in academia seemed to be so easily disparaged, discounted and worthy of suspicion in some sectors. A few times when I was routinely seen engaged in deep research study on or off campus, some admins (jokingly?) voiced their concerns for my well-being. In academe, where insecurity and expectation eagerly await scholars at all levels and at every turn, holding scholars accountable for their perceived reserve is unnecessary.

As graduate students and early-career researchers, we should embrace the quiet scholars within of us, even if it makes other people nervous. Don’t let others’ strange and confounding suspicions dissuade you from pursuing the quiet scholarship in which you’re deeply engaged.

Here’s how to continue to (quietly) thrive in academia:

  • Know a common misconception – being reserved is a sign of timidity or fear. Be in on the secret. Don’t disregard such shrewd and strategic skills as quietness and apprehension when it comes to the persistence of process and completion in intense research study. In a world where the perceived charisma of the blusterers, boasters, and conversationalists is heralded and held in high esteem, it’s easy for such false assumptions to take root, especially in academia, which loses many of its introverted grad students who may not adapt well to feeling forced to assume the required roles and practices favored by extraverts. Academia compels us to speak confidently and boldly about our research, teach and engage students, withstand lengthy and public interview processes for campus positions, and more. Honestly, what is not a secret are the many academics among us who abide by “fake it until you make it” as their modus operandi, although we may prefer not to call it by its contemporary colloquialism. It makes me think that many of us – even the extroverts – are really introverts at heart, who are performing and assuming the academic and professional roles we think will best serve our interests.

  • Because real listening and observing are dying arts, know that you’re at the top of the game. It’s ironic that the qualities of an introvert would be shunned today; historically, scholars who pursued advanced degrees were expected to work within the confines of alienation (from general society), academic isolation and long hours (in pursuit of research), and professional expertise (through an erudite command of specific subjects).

Sound familiar?

Though more disciplines have become much more communal and collaborative over time, many have retained and still assume their own brand of introspection. Introverts can be effective academic leaders based on studies that show how we leverage and take advantage of our introverted selves to respond to leadership challenges, is far more important than what those individual qualities may be or are perceived to be.

  • Make friends later. Ha! Just kidding. Extreme long-term isolation can still be harmful and Gradhackers have written about the numerous ways to ameliorate it here, here, here, and here. Without judgment, good friends know when to leave you alone and when to occasionally drag you out of your research abyss. For some introverts, it may be enough to merely be in close proximity to other people rather than to be the life of the party.

We introverts, the “quiet people” who accept the label, but hate the baggage that comes with it, are learning to perfect skills that still enable us to succeed in academia. We know when our inward behavior has served us well (thinking deeply before we speak, act, and write) and when it may have been a detriment (missed opportunities). For me, it’s the difference between feeling euphoric at being “in the zone” when I’ve achieved self-imposed targets and sensing pangs of regret in the pit of my stomach when I failed to take much-needed risks. When all's said and done, continue to gain ground on those who seem to be busy watching you and calling you out for your perceived introversion.

Are you an introvert in academia? What has been your experience? What has worked for you as you have navigated higher education? Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter!

[Photo by Igor Cancarevic on Unsplash and under the Creative Commons license.]

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