Monday, February 18, 2013

Extroversion, Collaboration, and Neurological Differences

I am cross-posting this blog because it overlaps issues important to the autism community, rhetoric instructors, and those teaching with technology. It is a personal issue, for me, and one that reminds me how apart from "normal" society and dominant pedagogies I am as someone with a neurological challenge.

The following contains generalities, and there are always exceptions to generalities. But, my experiences and those of adults with cognitive differences I have interviewed do support my claims.

Contrary to what some might assume, many teachers in the humanities (though certainly not all) are extroverts. I've found the opposite is true in most science and technology fields, with the introverts outnumbering the extroverts. Statistically, there are personality traits that dominate various disciplines. There are political views that dominate, too. There are scholarly studies of the political views of professors (Gross and Simmons, 2007) and personality types within disciplines.

In rhetoric and many English departments, the rogues, the iconoclasts, are the rugged individualists with a tendency towards introversion. The norm is an emphasis on group work and buzzwords like "community." There is, as Gross and Simmons found (among others), a bias towards left-leaning political theories and outspoken activism. Good luck being an introverted Libertarian with neurological differences.

You might imagine the faculty in English or rhetoric want to sit and read in nice, quiet spaces alone. But, if you read the list of topics and conferences, these are a social and political group of professors. I found that wanting to be alone, focused on my work, was not how rhetoric or English departments function: they are social spaces with a lot of idealism. Compared to business or engineering, I've been in an academic sphere that fails to align with my personality — let alone my political ideals.

We claim to value various learning styles, from auditory to visual, but our practices don't value different personality and neurological traits. We seem to appreciate that some people learn from lectures and others learn from kinetic interactions, but we dismiss the preference — even the need — for some students to work alone or in pairs instead of larger collaborative teams.

Sadly, how socially skilled you are is statistically significant when predicting college success. For more than one individual I've met with autism or other cognitive differences, the social aspects of school proved impossible to navigate. Although there is a stereotype of "awkward genius" the reality is that even most professors prefer charming outgoing students.
The Utility of Career and Personality Assessment in Predicting Academic Progress
Abstract

We examined the ability of four career and personality assessment inventories to predict students' first-year college performance and persistence. Among our sample of 677 college freshmen who enrolled in a freshman orientation course, subscales from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory, and Social Skills Inventory uniquely predicted first-year college GPA, and subscales from these three instruments and the Career Factors Inventory uniquely contributed to the prediction of freshman-to-sophomore persistence, each after controlling for ACT/SAT scores.
— from http://jca.sagepub.com/content/10/1/3.short
The following essay, published in The Atlantic, indicates how biased some English writing instructors are.
Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at SchoolJessica Lahey is an English, Latin, and writing teacher
FEB 7 2013

In the end, I have decided to retain my class participation requirement. As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in -- a world where most people won't stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.

Dr. Kendall Hoyt -- introvert, assistant professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School -- agrees. "You don't get a pass for your personality type. I understand that social anxiety is a real thing - I am an introvert, and my mother used to actually faint if she had to do public speaking - but part of my job as a teacher is to teach people how to articulate and be heard."

Hoyt applies this same philosophy to her own children, both introverts. She and her babysitter have constructed elaborate social scavenger hunts for the children, games that require them to approach strangers, look them in the eye, and ask for whatever the game requires - directions, information, or signatures.

When I asked her why she puts so much effort into her children's ability to communicate with strangers, she answered, "In order to be effective in this world, you must be able to communicate. If you can't speak up for yourself, if you can't muster the courage to tell the person you love that you love them, if you can't advocate for your own safety, the world will be a very intimidating and frightening place. I don't want my kids to be intimidated by the world."

When a parent tells me that his or her child is simply not capable of communicating educational and emotional needs, I see a child even more in need of mastering interpersonal communication. I'm not talking about the value of communication as it relates to grades here; I am talking about the value of communication as it relates to personal health, happiness, and safety….

— from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/introverted-kids-need-to-learn-to-speak-up-at-school/272960/
The one place that should value knowledge and skills over personality, the classroom, turns out to be a horrible experience for the gifted people I've interviewed and studied. It wasn't that great for me or my wife, either, as we are both gifted introverts. We can't play the social games necessary in some academic settings. That's depressing.

A colleague of mine has completed her dissertation. The topic was giftedness in the workplace. It turns out, most of us with "special gifts" want to be left alone… not made to be part of some group and not required to speak up in some classes.

Why is there so much faith in the idea that the more people, the better? Groups are not wise; they are often dangerous mobs. Plenty of research has debunked the value of "brainstorming" because the loudest voices end up getting their way. I want to sit and solve problems on my own. When I need help, I'll ask the few people I trust, and then go back to working on my own after getting input from wiser experts.

Why is it wrong to be different? I have blogged about these issues before:
Just a fraction of the examples of personality-type research in higher education:

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