The story of a shy academic

Joe Moran on the little-known benefits of being a shrinking violet

September 24, 2015
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When I got my first academic job in 1996, it was easy enough to be invisible. Universities were starting to create their first, text-heavy websites, but there were no staff profiles, with capsule biographies and headshots that had to comply with branding guidelines. Lectures were not “captured” and uploaded on to university YouTube channels, because the steampunk internet of the last millennium couldn’t handle moving images (or still ones very well). No one took photographs of us while we were giving talks and tweeted them to their followers, because mobile phones worked only as phones, and “twitter” was just an underused verb. Unless you happened to work with them, you knew other academics by seeing their names on books and articles and by peering myopically at their name badges at conferences.

Two decades later, universities live by what Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012), calls the “extrovert ideal”. This is a result of the coming together of new mobile and online technologies with a new emphasis on public relations, impact and civic engagement. I mostly welcome these changes: universities need to let the world know what they are doing, if only to counter the low-level rumble of hostility and suspicion about them that emanates from the government and the media. But for someone who has spent most of his adult life artfully avoiding looking in mirrors, the mass rebooting of expectations about personal visibility takes some getting used to. I cannot be the only one with this dilemma. How does the shy academic navigate the new world order in which we are expected to be “on” all the time?

There has always been a tension between the introspective life of scholarship and the university as a place of ritualistic performance. As William Clark argues in his book Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (2006), the medieval roots of the university lie not in some cloistered clerisy, beavering away alone in the quiet corners of libraries, but in a kind of intellectual theatre. Lecturing drew on the charismatic aura and rhetorical effects of the religious sermon. Examinations were not a matter of silent scribbling at desks, but of viva voces modelled on public trials. The disputation, a pre-modern precursor of the seminar in which a respondent affirmed a thesis and an opponent tried to refute it, was inspired, according to Clark, by the pseudo-combat of the medieval joust. From sitting on throne-like professorial “chairs” to processing through town wearing gowns and funny hats, the university has always been a good place for show-offs.

It isn’t really the showing off that I have a problem with. Shy academics are often surprisingly able public speakers and performers, perhaps because they know as well as anyone that life is a perpetual performance, and that when they step in front of a lectern all they are really doing is substituting one role for another. They tend to be reassured by clarity and structure, by physical props and affordances that tell them how they should behave. When I have my notes in front of me and a clicker in my hand, I know I have been given a second chance to impersonate a normal, working human being, in the same way that shy police officers or train managers are said to be emboldened by wearing a uniform. My big fear in conversation is that I am boring my interlocutor, which makes me throw away my words and trail off at the end of sentences, so the fear becomes self-fulfilling. But in a lecture I have been given permission to speak uninterrupted, and am free to make up a slightly amplified, cartoonish version of myself. In a world where we have to pretend that most of our performances are natural, one that does not hide its status as such feels like a deliverance.

German has a word for it: Maskenfreiheit, the freedom that comes from wearing masks. Heinrich Heine used this portmanteau term in his Letters from Berlin (1822) when he wrote that we feel most liberated at a masked ball, “where the waxen mask hides our usual mask of flesh…where a Venetian cloak (Domino) covers all pretensions and brings about the most beautiful equality and the most beautiful freedom”. The protocols of academic writing can allow for a similar Maskenfreiheit. At the start of my career, I was drawn to the anonymous submission of journal articles because it allowed my writing to stand on its own, with no need for face time or self-promotion. Double-blind peer review, and that self-deleting professional gloss of double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point and the Harvard system of referencing, offered the same emancipating anonymity as the masked ball, with the “reveal” coming only after your work was pronounced fit to print.

My problems at work came not with structure but with informality, when conversations were meant to form artlessly through casual encounters. This happened at places such as the photocopier, that academic equivalent of the parish pump where gossip is exchanged and friendships cemented; or in corridors, which are officially meant for direct access to somewhere else but are unofficially meant for chance meetings and lingerings. It was in these liminal spaces that I came unstuck, never knowing if I was supposed to stop and say hello or for how long. I might pass two colleagues deep in conversation, stop and greet them and, while they carried on talking, wonder when to interject. Eventually, having simply smiled and nodded, I would slope off and leave them to it.

I used to berate myself for my mumbling uselessness in these situations. How could I, an English lecturer who made my living out of words, be so bad at stringing them together except under highly rehearsed conditions? These days I am less self-lacerating, partly because I have realised that our personalities do not do handbrake turns and that trying to defeat something as resilient as my shyness now seems pointless, like shouting at the wind or arguing with the rain. But I have also begun to think that shyness, while mostly a nuisance and certainly nothing to be secretly proud of, may have its own accidental compensations.

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In his book The Memory Chalet (2010), the historian Tony Judt recalls how the neo-Socratic method of disputatio in the tutorials that he attended as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s (“Why did you write this?”, “What did you mean by it?”) rewarded the self-assuredly silver-tongued like himself and punished the shy and cautious: “My self-serving faith in articulacy was reinforced: not merely evidence of intelligence but intelligence itself.” Unlike the young Judt, I have developed a (perhaps equally self-serving) faith in the value of a selectively practised inarticulacy. In our age of oversharing, in which we tend to see talking as an unalloyed good, perhaps there is some value in stopping to think about how much sense we are making and if anyone is listening.

Some years ago, in a seminar, I spotted one of my students deploying a graceful gesture that involved extending his arm at 90 degrees, slowly unclenching his fist and gazing upwards, as if he had released a helium-filled balloon and it was escaping into the air. I asked him what this meant and it turned out to be a youth-culture meme, the “awkward balloon”, the release of which signalled that an uneasy silence had fallen. I wasn’t clear whether the gesture was meant to exacerbate or dissipate the awkwardness, but the meaning was the same: silence is awkward and to be avoided. I did not say to him – for, naturally, I couldn’t think of a reply until afterwards – that, in small doses, awkward silences might have their uses.

In a world of constant babble and blather, perhaps such mildly unsettling hiatuses could inspire a thoughtfulness about how much can be known and how much we really understand about each other. A seminar could be, if nothing else, a break from the endless noise of our endlessly mediatised lives – a brief respite from being constantly available to others via those familiar dancing thumbs on our touchscreens, and from the 24-hour court of unanchored opinion and general kicking off on social and mainstream media. It could be a replenishing pause, a space to stop, breathe and think.

I used simply to be relieved that I could get students talking in class, that I had managed to conjure up a conversation with them out of thin air that lasted the requisite time. Nowadays I tend to leave longer silences after asking questions, to avoid pouncing on their answers so readily, not to worry too much about creating a contrived chattiness. I hope, as part of an English degree, that I can teach my students how to talk and write well. But I want also to leave them with a salutary sense of the limits of language, a recognition that we can never make ourselves wholly understood with these slippery, better-than-nothing things called words. Such an awareness, that communicating with each other is hard and often fails, might make us listen and talk better.

One of the reasons for my aversion to university management-speak (I realise, of course, that shy people don’t hold a monopoly on this aversion) is that it is founded on a lazy fluency, an assumption that language is easy and straightforward. The purveyors of the official language of universities seem to work on the assumption that, just by soldering together a few abstract nouns, passive constructions and free-floating participles, they have succeeded in communicating with other human beings. In reality, their pseudo-objective imagining of unpeopled worlds made up of agentless processes is a kind of anti-communication. It betrays a deep mistrust of the subtleties of language and, by extension, the sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings that such nuanced language makes possible. Those who serve up this glutinous word soup so unthinkingly might benefit from cultivating a greater modesty – a shyness, if you like – about how much can be claimed and measured with the same old words.

On the whole, though, I have found universities good places to be shy. The brain wiring of the classic, Jungian introverts, who need to make strategic retreats from social life in order to collect their thoughts and curate them into meaningful shapes, is peculiarly suited to the long timescales and deferred gratifications of academic work. But more than that, a university is a place where our introverted and extroverted impulses can come together – where individual intellectual curiosity, nurtured through long, gestatory periods of solitary reflection, can bump up creatively against the desire to share ideas and spark off others.

A university at its best is a large and motley family, and a place where very different personalities – shy, confident and all shades in between – can come together and feel at home. In fact, everyone’s personality is itself a mix of different instincts. I know this because the best way I have found of assuaging the self-preoccupation that comes with my own shyness has been to convert my interest in this condition into anthropological curiosity. Academic conferences are a fertile setting for such a field biologist of the shy – and it is striking how often those startlingly self-possessed people, extemporising long, digressive post-paper questions, turn into those lost-looking souls holding their interval cups and saucers like shields and looking a little too intently at their conference programmes.

Years ago, the historian J. H. Plumb came up with the perfect oxymoron, “barking shyness”, to describe the personality of his PhD supervisor, George Macaulay Trevelyan. I have known a few academics like that, their shyness turning them awkwardly loquacious instead of tongue-tied. Shyness is, I have come to realise, a dirt-common condition. But it is uneven and situational, ebbing and flowing and sometimes manifesting in the most unlikely symptoms. All human beings are social animals, by instinct and default setting; some of us simply display that sociability in strange and circuitous ways. I hope that the university, even in the age of the “extrovert ideal”, can still find a place for us.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. He blogs at joemoran.net and his book Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness will be published next year.

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Print headline: The quiet life

Reader's comments (2)

Oh yes. The hell of conference "networking". It makes me shudder, even as I sit at my desk, alone, writing this. I found Susan Cane's book rather refreshing, especially unpicking the often misunderstood distinction between shyness and introversion, and this article's discussion of maskenfreiheit is something that certainly chimes with me, in my professional life. An academic life is fine for introversion, but the modern day demands of "impact", leading to the need to "sell" yourself are hell for the shy (like me), who are not of course, entirely the same group.
A good article. In my book Silence in Schools (2012) I argue for pausing as a fundamental tool for education. Just as it would work well in schools, so too in higher education. But to get people to pause and not speak as Prof Moran here advocates is to break them. We need a culture of silence in higher education where silence becomes both academically sexy and vital.

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