Remote Teaching While Introverted

Full vitae introvert teaching online

Image: iStock

By Jessamyn Neuhaus

Normally, I love a good introvert joke:

  • The first rule of Introvert Club is there is no club. Thank goodness.
  • Books: Helping introverts avoid conversation since 1454.
  • Question: How many introverts does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Why does it have to be a group activity?

But in March, when social distancing and remote work became a disease-driven mandate rather than a lighthearted description of an introvert’s weekend plans, #IntrovertProblems stopped being funny.

Understanding how being an introvert affects my work in the college classroom is the basis of my 2019 bookGeeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. In February, The Chronicle published an essay, "Teaching While Introverted," on the same topic. February seems like a long time ago, so what does "teaching while introverted" mean amid Covid-19, and for the post-pandemic campus?

Social distancing is not intentional solitude. First, let’s get one thing clear: Introverts aren’t misanthropic hermits, and imposed isolation is not the same thing as peaceful solitude. Rather, introverts simply need a lot of quiet time by ourselves in order to recharge our intellectual, emotional, and physical batteries after social interactions. Introverts build and sustain strong connections with other people, but we balance community participation with solitary activity that refuels us.

With campus shutdowns, work-from-home orders, and compulsory isolation, there is no such balance anymore. Closures everywhere mean many introverts are home with family members 24/7 — sometimes in close quarters, sharply reducing opportunities for extended quiet solitude.

Remote instruction is not an introvert’s paradise. What we’re all doing right now in our emergency remote classrooms requires intensive, emotionally draining, interpersonal interactions. They aren’t easy for anyone but pose particular challenges for introverts.

The hardest work I’ve done to become an effective teacher has been learning how to cultivate rapport, trust, and approachability with students. It requires social skills and emotional awareness. It means continually pushing past my comfort zone — i.e., being alone with my thoughts — to build relationships with students, or what Harriet L. Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Carlow University, calls "connected teaching."

Because I love my subject so much (nerd alert!) and care deeply about students’ learning, I expend a ton of energy when I’m teaching. In the classroom, I’m giving my complete attention and effort to every interaction. According to my Fitbit, I burn more calories teaching one class than running on a treadmill. An introvert’s best cardio: talking to people.

When my face-to-face classes were suspended because of Covid-19, I did what most conscientious instructors did. Pushing aside my own fears, I sprang into action, intent upon helping my students finish the semester, adjusting my assignments and assessments, and reconceptualizing everything I’d planned through the lens of emergency remote instruction.

Having no previous hands-on experience with online teaching or blended course design, I threw myself into figuring out how to use educational technology in my newly remote courses. But I completely forgot what I’ve spent two decades learning as an introverted college teacher: Human connections come first, especially in our current crisis. What students most need from their instructors right now aren’t impeccably crafted online learning experiences (impossible under the circumstances anyway) but compassion and kindness.

All of which put me back at square one — an introverted faculty member once again struggling to connect with students but now in a virtual classroom. In the midst of a global pandemic. While I’m unhappily stuck at home with other people unhappily stuck at home.

So far, I’ve identified three specific practices that have helped me in our shift to emergency remote instruction. I hope these suggestions can help other introverts as we look ahead to more social distancing and online teaching this summer and, to some degree, in the fall semester.

Do the mental prep work for remote communication. Even on a normal day in a physical classroom, reaching out to students is hard for me. When I see them before class or pass them in the hallway, do I draw their attention if they’re looking at their phone? Will I look like a complete dork when I mumble some awkward greeting? Is eye contact really necessary?

Remote teaching in a pandemic doesn’t pose those particular problems for introverts. Instead it brings a whole different set of challenges. Now I’m sitting alone at my keyboard as I teach, but effective communication is even more crucial, as scholars and practitioners of online teaching and learning have been saying all along. We can’t just fire off a quick email and call it a day. We have to put a lot of time and effort into personalized, consistent, and clear virtual communication.

This semester, that means exerting myself, on a regular basis, to stay in close contact with students and cultivate my online presence. That’s a big stretch for introverts, especially stuck in our homes where many of us can no longer find moments of solitude. My first reaction when the phone rings or there’s a knock on the door is: "Oh no, someone wants to talk to me. Where can I hide?"

What’s helped me overcome that impulse in face-to-face teaching is deliberate preparation before I enter a classroom or start my office hours, because I know interrelating is an essential part of effective teaching. I’m adapting that preparation to my remote teaching. For example, I schedule specific blocks of time dedicated solely to student outreach: talking on the phone, answering messages, following up with individual students, and sending out reminders and announcements. Having a clearly defined period of interacting helps introverts prepare to "people."

Similarly, Zoom meetings and classes aren’t just a matter of getting the tech right, deterring Zoom-bombing, or ensuring inclusivity. Those are important, but, as an introvert, the very first thing I have to do is stop hating the whole idea of teleconferencing. I have to mentally prepare myself to do some things I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid — things like prolonged eye contact, uncomfortable conversational pauses, and seeing my own self-conscious face as I strain to interact in a virtual setting. (Also, plan to be exhausted afterward: Zoom fatigue is real.)

All of the things we do when we don our teaching persona and enter the in-person classroom, we now have to adapt for the Zoom room.

Seize some solitude wherever you can find it. When teaching in person, it’s not hard to establish boundaries between "I am in teacher mode, fully present with students" and "Ahhh, alone in my beautiful mind palace at last!" We can leave campus or close the office door (if we are lucky enough to have an office and not consigned to that modern torture chamber known as an "open office plan"). For introverts with demanding home responsibilities, solitude may be found in the daily commute or in that precious hour after the kids are asleep. The point is: Introverts in face-to-face courses understand our need for solitude in order to replenish our teaching energy.

Likewise, introverts need solitude to recharge after remote instruction — especially this emergency version of it undertaken in highly stressful times. For many, however, peace and quiet may be almost impossible now, depending on where you are social distancing and with whom.

Solitude isn’t a luxury for introverts — it’s a necessity, especially after intense, emotionally draining interactions online. This semester I’m taking frequent solo walks, toting my laptop to any place in the house with a door (it’s not a "coat closet," it’s a "contemplation chamber"), and setting my alarm an hour earlier than anyone else in my family. Even if it’s just stepping outside your front door for five minutes or taking a fast shower (lock the door, if you can!), solitude must be a priority.

As the writer and leadership coach Sherri Spelic pointed out, educators risk exhausting ourselves with our "tendency to make lemonade out of lemons even if there’s no sugar in sight to sweeten the deal." Everyone’s been handed a big stinking bushel of rancid lemons this semester. Whatever you must do in order to seize a little solitude/sugar, do it.

Learn something new about teaching. The longer you’ve been a faculty member, the easier it is to forget how difficult it is for novice learners to engage in a scholarly discipline. But right now, college instructors are being powerfully reminded of what it feels like to be forced to radically rethink what we thought we knew — in this case about teaching — and learn in the face of extreme uncertainty.

As it turns out, we introverted intellectuals are powerfully equipped to learn new things. It may not be what we chose to learn — I could have lived my whole life quite happily never seeing my neck via webcam or knowing what "flattening the curve" means. But give us knotty problems, new information, and input from other scholars, and we will put on our thinking caps, buckle down, and emerge knowing more. So in that regard we are well-suited to come out on the other side of this crisis with hard-won new insights into our teaching practices.

I don’t mean ill-conceived research projects about measuring the quality of online learning in catastrophe conditions. I mean reading and listening to what teaching-and-learning experts are saying, paying close attention to everything we’re experiencing in our virtual classrooms, and reflecting thoughtfully on any new skills or understanding we’ve gained. Learning is hard, but it can also give some shape and meaning to teaching during this bizarre, heartbreaking semester.

Teaching effectively always demands things that don’t come easily or naturally to many introverts. And contrary to recent memes, introverts actually have not "been training our whole lives" for social distancing — or for emergency remote instruction. Nobody has.

But with preparation, solitude strategies, and a commitment to keep learning about pedagogy, we’ll complete this semester of triage teaching and be better prepared for whatever lies ahead.

Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and the spring-2020 teaching fellow at the Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence.

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