The Extroverted Academic

I’ve seen a lot of books, social media, and clever analogies devoted to introverts. And with good reason: introverts are deeply intricate, mysterious individuals who can (but not always) keep personality traits close to them until they feel safe enough to be themselves around trusted friends. They are fascinating, exciting people of great depth, wit, and character. I should know: I married an introvert, and many of my family members are introverts, as well. In fact, so are many of my friends and colleagues. I do greatly enjoy reading about the care and feeding of introverts, because it reminds me that Not Everyone Is Like Me. Did I forget to mention? I’m an extrovert with a  capital-E. Really, in my mind it reads more like EXTROVERT!!!! but you get the idea. By the way: if  you’re not terribly familiar with an extrovert, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert yourself, I highly recommend reading this blog on The Care and Feeding of Your Extrovert from an extrovert’s point of view. Rowan, an extrovert, does a great job of explaining the complexity of what has often been seen as a “simple” personality trait.

When contrasted to the many, many introverts in my life, I realize how different I can be and seem. Especially in my profession. As my faithful readers know,  I am a doctoral student in English Literature, and currently teaching courses for the university at which I am enrolled. Many (but certainly not ALL) academics I know tend to be introverts , and if you think about the nature of academia in English Studies departments, it kind of makes sense. Our work involves, with a lot of teaching, a lot of research, introspection, and connection to ideas, theories, and insights. To generalize: a lot of thinking and reading. By stereotypical standards, introverts would thus seem to be a perfect fit.

As an extrovert, I find myself fighting stereotypes over both academia and extroverts. You see, some individuals are guilty of setting up false dichotomies about personality types, with introverts depicting extroverts as shallow, unfocused butterflies who flit from one shiny thing to the next and suck the life out of everything with their obnoxious energy, and extroverts depicting introverts as withdrawn, unfriendly, and selfish. Neither of these stereotypes is fair. But, I’ve yet to see the outpouring of literature that accurately describes extroverts in the way that studies have churned out books about introverts. I sometimes secretly feel that though we perpetuate the myth that the world is made of extroverts, my own life experiences has shown me that it’s just not true.

If you think about the Myers-Briggs Type Indictator (MBTI), you will realize that extroversion is one of eight personality indicators, and those who identify as extroverts come in eight combination types: ESTP, ESFP, ENFP, ENTP, ESTJ, ESFJ, ENFJ, ENTJ. While I often test between ENFP and ENFJ, I really manifest as an ENFJ. The Myers-Briggs website describes an ENFJ as “warm, empathetic, responsive and responsible. Highly attuned to the emotions, needs, and motivations of others. Find potential in everyone, want to help others fulfill their potential. May act as catalysts for individual and group growth. Loyal, responsive to praise and criticism. Sociable, facilitate others in a group, and provide inspiring leadership.” Thus, I am less likely to be “logical” and task-oriented than an ESFJ, but I am highly attuned to the potential of others. In fact, the ENFJ personality type is often described as Teacher, which I think is a fitting nod to my profession.

Academic myths that we perpetuate tend to value the individual over the community, the intellectual thinker over the sharer, and knowledge over people. If you look over the many blogs and articles written about the current state of academia (which I do not urge you to do–it is rather grim right now), you will see that the bottom line and the tenure line takes precedence over building the sort of idealistic communities that extroverts tend to yearn after.

And with these two perceptions, I sometimes find it very daunting to be an extrovert in academia. What follows is a guide that has helped me articulate who I am in my professional environment. If you are yourself an extroverted academic, or know one, I hope this will provide some clarity and insight. Disclaimer: this list is not to be taken as an insult to introverts or a poor-me manifesto, but an exploration of the joys and challenges of my personality type within my particular occupation. This is not a one-size-fits-all list, but rather, a guide that expresses my particular manifestation of extraversion:

1. Human interaction is a basic emotional need for me. I am fueled by my relationships with my friends and colleagues. This does not automatically mean that I looooove going to conferences (they’re just okay) or am awesome at schmoozing (I’m not, and for reasons I’ll articulate in a little bit); rather, I am fueled by my interactions with my colleagues and peers. I am energized when several of us get together and share ideas/stories/critiques.

2. It’s true that I love to talk and will share my ideas, especially if I find you interested and receptive. But I also enjoy listening and hearing your ideas. Basically, if you give me a teaser or introduce yourself in the conversation, I will welcome you with open arms and shut up attentively. But I am not a mind reader. I don’t know if you’re secretly resenting my seeming domination of the conversation, or if you’re just being a good listener (though your body language can certainly help me make that distinction). If you keep listening and I have something to say, I’ll keep talking. But if I have nothing to say, I won’t say it. I don’t just gabble on because I love to hear my voice–I enjoy hearing yours, too.

3. I genuinely like teaching. I’m not posturing when I say that I really like my students, and I find it to be my calling. As an ENFJ, I am peculiarly attuned to the potential that other people house within themselves. Therefore, I make it my mission to help my students unleash that potential. I find a batch of poor grades as much a reflector of my teaching as I do on my students’ performance (though circumstances could tweak that mindset, certainly). Therefore, I find it terribly hurtful when I’ve had colleagues suggest that I am not “mean enough” to my students or that I “give to0 many As.” As someone who puts her heart into making her courses concise, understandable, and meaningful, I find such suggestions denigrate the way I relate to my mentees, and to their potential abilities.

4. I will not be shattered if you offer constructive criticism or legitimate concerns that you can back with specific examples. I *will,* however, be devastated if you are a jerk behind my back, if you attack me for no good reason, or speak badly about me when I have given you no reason to. I have been at the receiving end of backhanded criticism, and I spent HOURS trying to decipher what I’d done. I analyzed and second-guessed everything in my interactions with a few of my colleagues. In the end, I had to conclude that it wasn’t my fault, and all I could do was be polite and respectful to my peers. But I have never forgotten those comments, and I never will. And I think about everything I say before I speak to those individuals.

5. I am a social person, and I realize that I am intense, and can come off too strong. So, I try to control myself, and can often seem shallow because I offer up small talk as a “warm-up.” Listen, I am more than happy to discuss auteur theory with you. But I am equally happy to discuss the Kardashians (and it’s true, I know way too much about that family). See #1. It’s just that I’m afraid to overwhelm you with my intensity. Which brings me to…

6. Though I naturally gravitate towards human interactions, it comes with a nasty companion: constant, social anxiety that can sometimes overcome my joyful embrace of humanity altogether. If you are cold or unresponsive, I am (usually) quick to recognize that and may end the conversation as soon as I can think of it–this may make conversation awkwardly abrupt. I may become afraid that I am boring you and get out of a conversation, even if I’m enjoying it. I may be afraid to approach you, simply because I don’t want to seem like I am foisting myself upon you. My need for human interaction is linked to my need to be accepted and nurtured. Thus, I can’t let some things slide as easily as my more introverted companions. I overthink conversations constantly and cringe at all my mistakes. Thus, I sometimes find it awkward and difficult to schmooze with academics, particularly if I am afraid that I am going to be judged because I like Jane Austen (and seriously, the academic backlash against Ms. Austen is unbelievable, but that will have to be another blog post), or because I listen to Lady Gaga unironically. And not to hate on academics, but seriously, we can be a judgy, pretentious bunch sometimes.

7. Having a cheerful…no, let’s be honest, perky…demeanor often works against me. I am a small-framed, white, blonde, feminine-looking woman with a high voice who dresses in bright colors, and often wears dresses and flip-flops in the summer. I smile A LOT. Kids, I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna. I’m just in love with life, and if it’s a good day, I have no compunction about showing it. Therefore, I have been seen as fluffy, not smart, an airhead, you name it. Being treated this way by men is a grim reminder that the glass ceiling is alive and well. And yet, if I am assertive or aggressive in defending my theory/reading/ideas, I am then called a bitch. I work hard, and my appearance or demeanor does not (or should not) overshadow the seriousness with which I approach my occupation.

8. Sometimes, I become lonely in toxic academic environments. In places that value the individual and unintentionally reward backbiting and other nasty behaviors, I withdraw when I realize that I am not going to be appreciated. I’m not shy, and I’m not a snob. But I can recognize where I will be hurt or unappreciated, and so I take measures to protect myself. But then I suffer, because I crave a nourishing, balanced community made of accepting and loving people with whom I am an equal.

9. Despite some of the posts that jokingly assume that extroverts see a book as a paperweight or a doorstop (really, Tumblr? Really???), I enjoy reading. I’m not a nonstop party, and I like my down time, too. I find that reading nourishes and develops other sides of me. I can sit for hours with a book and be transported into other worlds and ideas. I just might text someone throughout the process, though. Because if I’m engrossed by something, then I have to share it.

10. I can commit to things, and I can follow through on some of my grandiose ideas. It’s true that I’m not the best planner or the most logistical of thinkers. But that doesn’t mean I flit carelessly from one idea to the next. I stumbled upon my dissertation idea last spring, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I’ve had to change/abandon a few related ideas, but the overall topic has remained the same, and I’ve had no hesitation about sticking with my commitment. On that note: yes, extroverts can and do commit. I’m not quitting my PhD program any time soon in favor of becoming a basket weaver or a yoga instructor (can I get a sarcasm font for that?).

11. I love to share. Really. If I have a great idea, then I share it. If something works, I want to talk about it. I’m not backhandedly suggesting that your teaching is bad, I’m just sharing what has worked. And, in fact, I will also share my failures and frustrations with you. In that respect, I am a sort of open book. I’m just as open about my failures as I am about my successes, and I will be the first to beat myself up about them.

How do you see extroverts, if you are an introvert? How do you see yourself, if you are an extrovert? Please feel free to share–I find personalities fascinating, and I’d really love to have more dialogue about extraversion, especially in light of the explosion of texts about introverts.





Filed under Doctorate, Outlook, Personality, State of mind, Teaching

6 responses to “The Extroverted Academic

  1. Hey Bonnie, great post! I like to spend so much time hanging out with myself in my apartment that I will not claim to be anything other than an introvert. But I’ve never thought of extroverts as shallow. My dad is quite an extrovert, and also an articulate, thoughtful man. Perhaps I should reply point by point with my humble opinions.
    1) I think human interaction is a basic need for all humans. Just look at kids who spent their first few days without human interaction. The type of interaction which one finds most fulfilling can differ, but the need is common.
    2) Indeed you do. I can testify.
    3) Me too.
    4) Amen. Good, constructive criticism is very necessary for growth, I think.
    5) Haha! I love it when people are engaged and enthusiastic. Even though I’m an introvert, I can get quite enthusiastic in academic discussions or even discussions about Game of Thrones. Or Pat Rothfuss. What are the Doors of Stone? Are they Kvothe’s heart (Auri said once that he had a stone where his heart should be), the doors in the Tooms, the doors of death, something else? Sorry, cough.
    6) I’ve been working on my own social anxiety issues. Bon courage with yours. I salute you in solidarity.
    7) I’ve heard some women complain that if they are too feminine nobody takes them seriously, too. Clearly feminism still has some work to do. For extroverts, femmes, men, and all sorts of groups.
    8) Amen.
    9) Amen. My family used to sit around, each reading our own book, randomly reading aloud choice bits. Good times.
    10) Indeed. I respect.
    11) And I’m glad you do : )
    Good topic!

  2. Ebster

    Thank you for the article.

    When I apply the lables “extrovert” or “introvert” it usually means I think the behavior of the person to whom I’m applying the lable is frustrating and I’m trying to make sense of it.

    I met a peraon who behaved similar to the way you described yourself. It kind of annoyed me at first because it seemed like she was being absorbed in herself and indifferent towards others. When we got to know each other better, I recognized it as a personality trait and not a flaw of character.
    (My favorite extrovert in literature is Harry Potter)

  3. Pingback: It’s not you, it’s me | The Research Whisperer

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel like you are describing my life, and it makes me feel less alone (which y’know is not something we like!!) ESPECIALLY loved the bit about the books and doorstops, too true.
    Your fellow extrovert doctoral student. 🙂

  5. Thanks so much for this post, I’m at the very beginning of my year-long sabbatical and as an extroverted academic I’m finding it exceptionally difficult to get excited about being on research “lock down” and not having a community to connect to, let alone decreasing my interactions with my students. Nice to know there are others like me out there…

  6. I’m a mid-career extroverted academic, and this all STILL rings true. Long days of research and writing make me edgy and sad, even when I’m proud of the outcome, but I could mentor students till the cows come home.

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