It's tough to be an introvert in an extrovert world, especially in an extrovert's profession, like teaching. Through this blog, I'd like to share my own and others' reflections on being an introvert in the classroom. This isn't a place for misanthropes or grumps, though; I hope to thoughtfully discuss the challenges that introverts face in schools and celebrate the gifts that introverted teachers and students bring to the educational environment. If you can relate, please join me!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Holy Carnegie!

If you're a teacher, you've probably seen this meme pop up a few times in your social media feeds: 

It reminded me of something my former professor Tom McCambridge once said, which was an idea to the effect that the only way education could really work would be to have kids meet with teachers individually, just the way doctors and lawyers meet with their clients individually. Or the way tutors used to teach the wealthy (individually or in small sibling groups) before everyone went to secondary school. But now everyone would have such a tutor. 

I always liked that idea, though you can't idealize the schedules of doctors and lawyers. My primary care physician told me she has to treat one or two patients every fifteen minutes. That sounds pretty harrowing. 

But I also thought about one of my graduate school instructors, who had been educated in the U.K. For his Masters degree in English, he never attended "class," he told us. Instead, he had met individually each week with his advisor. 

All these things kept coming to mind recently because I teach online now and lots of people are using the Carnegie unit formula to make all sorts of analogies for what we should do in our online classes. "In the classroom three hours a week for a three-unit class? Great. Be on those discussion boards three hours a week for your online class!" But my class is not a class in discussion; it's a class in composition. How many times have I been frustrated in my face-to-face class because so much time is wasted doing only the things I can do with twenty-five people (group work, whole-class discussion) rather than individual reading and writing consultations? Finally, the online environment doesn't chain us to the three hours of lecture plus six hours of homework formula that's been the law and the model since so long ago. 

It's not that I think my students shouldn't interact with each other. I love discussing literature with them and hearing them discuss it with each other. I loved being in English classes as a student and participating in discussions. Everyone knows that good writers must read a lot and talk about their reading.  

But the hard truth is that, to write an essay, a person must sit and be thoughtful and write alone. And the teacher must sit, also thoughtful and also alone, and read it. I can only read one person's essay at a time. I can discuss that essay with that person. Or maybe, at most, we could have three people and all have read each other's essays and be having a conversation. Large groups and the long hours in class prevent teachers from being able to give enough feedback on writing. I like being a college teacher more than a high school teacher because the college schedule gives me more time alone, both to provide meaningful commentary upon my students' writing and to prepare meaningful lessons for the time that we are together in large numbers in class. 

Lecturing to large groups of passive receptacles has long gone out of favor. So, why are we still using the Carnegie unit, which is based on that model of teaching? The Carnegie unit assumes a group of homogeneous, traditional students motivated enough to actively listen to that lecture. (It also assumes that one mode of delivery is best for all subjects.) We no longer assume that the lecture part will still work; why do we continue to assume that the three hours together will still work? 

In online classes students and teacher are not all effectively locked into a classroom together for a set amount of time. With this freedom, writing professors could spend more time providing better feedback on their students' essays and giving them more individualized attention than they can in their face-to-face classes. 

The Carnegie unit is an outmoded concept that should not be constraining the ways we imagine our online classes. Or our on-ground classes anymore. 

And who knows? It may not. As grades have become untrustworthy and students are now to be measured on student or course learning outcomes, will anyone care ultimately HOW a student achieves the outcome, as long as he/she does? The idea that everyone needs the exact same amount of time in class to achieve any particular outcome seems impossible to defend in this day and age. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Is publishing perishing?

Introverts make excellent eavesdroppers.

I overheard one of my more senior colleagues complaining to another senior colleague awhile back that his post-tenure review committee didn't seem to appreciate all the time he spent doing scholarly writing. He viewed that work as the bulk of his service to the college and professional development. Instead, the evaluators wanted him to participate on more committees.

I admit that the colleague making the complaint is notoriously curmudgeonly. He knows he should make nice and show his face at a few more meetings and the occasional holiday party.

But, with that said, I was still bothered by his situation. In a sense, the evaluators were suggesting that the only real professional development, the only meaningful involvement on campus, was the kind done in groups. Going off by yourself and writing couldn't possibly be helping anyone.

So, while professors at the four-year schools, especially the research institutions, are cracking under the weight of expectations to publish, we at the community college level could now be chided for it. While they were living the old "publish or perish" ultimatum, was publishing going to perish among those of us in the "basement of the ivory tower"?

It reminds me of a little meeting all new hires had to participate in when I first joined the tenure-track faculty at my community college. A then-administrator explained that, now, my duties would be primarily teaching and so rather than being a scholar in my field (English), as I had been as a grad student, I would now be a scholar of education.

A little part of me died inside.

It was kind of insulting, both to my students and to me. It was as if she was saying that my students would all be at such a low level that they wouldn't benefit from my studying a literary specialty but would rather benefit more from me picking up endless gimmicks to convey elementary material to them.

It was as if she was saying that nobody needed me to be an expert in my field. (I thought of the other old-timer's response to my colleague the curmudgeon: "Committees? Any schmuck can join a committee. Not everyone can publish the kind of stuff you do.")

Telling faculty that no one needs them to be a specialist is a great way to get them to forget what they love about the field and get burned out. When I first started teaching high school and expressed my dismay at what my life had become to one of my former English professors, his advice was to be sure to read every day. Buried in homework, I thought he was crazy. But he had said to pick up some poetry every day, even if it was just for ten minutes: "Remember what you love." And now I see that he was right. If you can't keep up with your scholarly interests, if you can't be excited about your field, students won't find you very inspiring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Sometimes, I say to my students, much of English is math. My course is out of 1000 points. If you get 0/100 on something, your grade's going to take a big hit. Especially if you're already on the brink, getting a 75%. The grade is a simple calculation. Add all points earned, divide by total points possible. Move decimal point two places to get percentage. Simple.

But people don't believe. Or they just deny basic mathematical fact. "I've gotten mostly C's and D's, but can I still get a B in this class?" We always want something other than numbers to be at play.

Sometimes there is. Students always like to hold out the hope that extra efforts and a special dose of creativity will push them from 69% to 70%, from 79% to 80%. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't; after all, people whose grades are low are usually not the type of people to be putting forth the kind of effort that will push them over the borderline to the grade that they want.

While grades are pretty simple math, we often treat group work as if it's a matter of simple math while it isn't at all. This occurred to me as I read a couple of essays last week when my self-proclaimed introvert students explained that they liked the small group work we do in class because they felt more comfortable speaking in small groups rather than in front of the whole class. I was surprised, which seems weird. Introverts love one-on-one and small group communication, right?

Maybe I was stuck in the instructor's perspective: I don't know if I'll ever totally get over the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to be everywhere at once, directing the lesson in an orderly fashion. I don't like hopping from group to group, never knowing exactly what part of the reading we'll be talking about next.

But then I thought back on my time as a student. I didn't like small-group work then, either. Why did my students like it while I didn't?

Well, introversion isn't just a numbers game. Sticking an introvert with just any one or two people doesn't mean the introvert will have a good rapport with that person/those people. Often, in K-12, students have gone to school with the same people for years and there can be years of history between those people, good or bad. In college, you could be paired with a total stranger; you might bond, but you might not. At least in college, students are less clique-y and more open to actually having an intellectual discussion--that is, in college, you might not be deemed a nerd for actually wanting to participate in the group's assigned task rather than socialize.

Part of it may also have to do with the fact that I'm an oldest child. As the stereotype goes, I always got along better with older people than I did with my peers. In a whole-class discussion, at least the teacher wanted to hear what I had to say and would usually respond in an encouraging way. I knew how to relate to adults. The rules were explicit and easy. Throw me into a group, and I had to spend most of my time figuring out the rules of teenage socialization rather than dealing with the content.

In whole-class discussion, the teacher's presence could protect me. Even though I had to speak up in front of others, those others were usually quiet and if they said anything insulting, the teacher would hear and deal with it. But in groups, it's noisy. The teacher wasn't there to shame my classmates into polite toleration of me or whoever the speaker was.

When I read about collaborative learning, the research always assumes a benevolent collaborator. In the real world, that's not always the case.

As they say, it's a jungle out there. Yes, introverts love one-to-one or small-group communication, but an introvert gazelle isn't going to enjoy hanging out with a lion, even if there's just one of him/her.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Liquid Extroversion

I love Mondays and Wednesdays this semester because they are my online teaching days and I can be my introverted self all day long. Because I don't need to be in as mad a dash to get to campus as I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I stop at Starbucks and get a larger size coffee than usual so I can save half of it for the next day, because that's when I really need it, when I'm face-to-face.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The first week of school: how to exhaust yourself by teaching almost NO content at all!

Every semester, I fall for it. To make myself feel better about going back to work after a vacation, I think, "Oh, well, it's only the first week. I don't have to really study or prep. It's mostly going over the syllabus and the writing process and adding or dropping people."

When I think that, my brain selectively forgets that I'm an introvert. All my new students will be strangers. I will have to chit-chat with them during icebreakers.

Some of these total strangers will appear to be mad or sad when I tell them I cannot add them. I will not know if they are sincere in the urgency of their requests. As a highly sensitive person, I will be troubled by this.

I will be on the spot constantly at the beginning. I have to set the tone by going through the administrative procedures sternly on the first day. When things loosen up a little, I will still be on the spot because even if I'm not giving direct instruction, I'll have to speed around the room, making sure everyone is on task because behavioral standards are set during the first few weeks.

It may sound crazy, because as soon as writing starts coming in, the grading starts, but I actually look forward to curling up with a cup of coffee and reading their "Your Personal Literary History" essays and their "Introduce Yourself" poems. I guess we could call  those activities the introvert's favorite icebreakers-- the ones you do alone! And while the get-to-know-you activities in class do help me some, I find that I don't really learn their names until I have read their stories.