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Friday, September 25, 2015

The story of a shy academic by Joe Moran

Follow on Twitter as @joemoransblog
"The little-known benefits of being a shrinking violet." according to Joe Moran,  professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. He blogs at and his book Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness will be published next year.

Photo: Times Higher Education

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...

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...

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.

Source: Times Higher Education