The concepts of introversion and extroversion were popularized by famed Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung nearly a century ago, but the past decade has seen a spike in interest around how introverts and extroverts excel or falter in different social or learning environments. From popular TED Talks on the subject to people taking online tests to verify whether or not they’re an introvert or an extrovert, the impact of personality type on performance is a hot topic.
When it comes to professors, those who enjoy public speaking in front of large crowds—the extroverts—seem to have the edge. So how does an introverted professor—someone who’s likely more reserved, prefers solitude and finds big groups draining—excel in a situation where they’re forced to be social? Here are some tips on how introverted professor can embrace their in-class responsibilities.
1. Get outside your comfort zone
While they don’t always thrive in group learning environments, introverts can excel on their own when singularly and independently focused. It’s a major reason introverts make for great research professors in the higher ed space. But when those same academics are asked to fulfill the in-class portion of their job, it can require putting on their extrovert hat. “Because you have to be on so much of the time, you should try and step out of your comfort zone,” recommends writer, lecturer and introvert expert Susan Cain, who was recently featured in a Top Hat webinar, Bringing Out the Best in Quiet Students.
It’s something many educators have had to do before. Cal Poly psychology professor and self-described former introvert Laura Freberg got her first taste of lecturing when she was a 23-year-old UCLA grad student. It was something that was initially terrifying, made better by the eventual recognition that she knew more than those she was teaching, as well as by forcing herself to repeat the process many times over. “Gradually, year after year, you just become more comfortable with what you’re doing and less concerned about the public nature of what you’re doing,” she says.
Summed up by Stephen F. Austin State University psychology professor Lora Jacobi more succinctly, when it comes to breaking out of an introverted mode, it’s okay to “fake it ‘til you make it.”
2. Be yourself
If stepping out of your comfort zone seems like a daunting prospect, don’t think of it as trying to change who you are. In fact, being yourself will undoubtedly make you most comfortable. “I think people put too much pressure on themselves in the classroom to be the best entertainer possible,” says Freberg. “If that’s not you, if you’re not naturally a comedian, it’s not a great idea to try to pretend.”
It’s best to just focus on what you’re there to do: teach. You’re in front of students so that they can acquire knowledge and if you can facilitate that, you’ve done your job. Plus, unless you’re perspiring uncontrollably or your voice is shaky and cracking, it’ll be hard for anyone besides yourself to tell that you’re nervous. Ultimately, find comfort in the fact that if you look calm, students will think you’re calm.
3. Protect your “me” time
Making time for independent work outside of the classroom is an essential facet of life as an introverted professor. If you’re required to be in front of large crowds of students while lecturing, make sure you set aside time afterwards to decompress. “If you’re an introvert, it doesn’t matter how socially skilled you are,” says Cain. “After two or three hours, your battery is getting drained.”
To ensure you’re able to recharge, give yourself time alone after a lecture to go for a walk, continue with your research or eat alone. It’s something Freberg has even put into her daily routine. “My husband and I have sort of joked about this over the years, because when I get home from work, the first thing he wants to know is, ‘How was your day?’ That’s very kind, but I’m done with my day,” she says. “The concept that I needed that time to myself was very foreign to him, so I had to stick up for myself initially.”
4. Find strategies that work for you personally
While different methods for overcoming your introversion (even temporarily) work for different professors, practice and preparation are essential. “If you have a discomfort with public speaking, the best way to get over that is in manageable steps,” says Cain. “You might go to a local Toastmasters where you get to practice in small bursts.”
You also might try to get time lecturing in front of smaller classes first, or where possible, breaking a class into smaller groups. This can be a win-win for both introverted professors and introverted students. “I like students to have a more hands on experience and breaking the class into smaller groups allows the teacher to touch base with the groups and sit down and see how they’re doing in a more personal setting,” says Jacobi.
And if you’re an introverted professor looking to be empathetic to like-minded students in your class, new higher ed technologies may help you both. “By using an in-class, digital discussion board, everybody can be heard from,” says Freberg. “I really think that’s a marvelous innovation, and something I wish I had when I was a student”
Fill out the form below for free access to Susan Cain’s exclusive talk with Top Hat—A Conversation with Susan Cain: Bringing Out the Best in Quiet Students.