Like many English professors, I enjoy working in libraries, uncovering connections between writers, and opening books that have been closed for a century or more. I can spend whole days alone without feeling particularly lonely. I feel like I have personal friendships with many long-dead authors. I study their books, I read their correspondence, and I handle their personal possessions.
Of course, scholarly writing can be tedious, but, for me, even the most difficult writing eases anxiety. Footnotes make life seem orderly and controllable.
Like many scholars, I am a shy person, sometimes painfully so. I am uncomfortable around new people, particularly other academics, and this can make me seem stiff and unfriendly, when, in reality, I am often anxious about the impression I am making. I find myself thinking about my facial expressions while someone else is speaking. "Look natural," I think.
It is a remarkable paradox -- for me at least -- that the solitude of scholarship encourages self-forgetfulness. But the social interactions of academic life -- seminars, meetings, conference presentations, interviews, and teaching -- can provoke anxiety, self-consciousness, and brooding.
Graduate seminars were particularly painful for me. Sometimes I was so tense that my jaw would hurt by the end of the class. I always wanted to speak, but I also feared looking ignorant compared with other graduate students, who always seemed more confident at expressing themselves. Every stuttering, incompetent comment I made was a humiliation that I would remember vividly for months. By the end of the first year of graduate school, I was so demoralized that I could barely lift my eyes from the seminar table, much less discourse on the finer points of Foucault.
Sometimes I daydreamed -- and maybe hoped -- that I would be exposed as unworthy and ejected from graduate school. I once had a memorable nightmare about being hurled into the gutter by an academic bouncer with massive biceps. He gave me a kick for good measure, "And stay out!" he said.
To put it mildly, those feelings were not rational.
The admissions committee of my graduate school probably did not commit an unusually egregious mistake when it admitted me. I did receive a number of awards and grants for my scholarly work. I eventually found a tenure-track position, and I think I am doing good work as a professor. But I still feel anxious and reluctant to speak at faculty meetings, and administrators make me uncomfortable. I still fear committing some nervous gaffe that will reveal that I do not belong here, that I was hired by mistake.
Educational psychologists say my shyness and the "imposter syndrome" are common among people who have moved into unfamiliar cultural territory. I was the first in my family to attend college, much less graduate school, and, from the beginning of my time in higher education, I always felt there were hidden social rules that I must discover or face public rejection: What should I wear? How should I speak? When should I laugh? What must I conceal? Silence and withdrawal were easier, less risky, and less painful to remember than social errors.
Of course, extreme shyness (now pathologized as "social anxiety disorder") has a biological component that can be treated, though medication may not be the best option for everyone who has this problem.
Still, there is a great deal of good in the culture of shyness -- the elaborate coping mechanisms of shy people -- that should not be regarded merely as symptoms of an illness to be overcome through some combination of will power and drugs.
Because of their tendency toward self-criticism, shy people are often high achievers, and not just in solitary activities like research and writing. Perhaps even more than the drive toward independent achievement, shy people long to make connections to others, often through altruistic behavior. Although academic hiring committees seem to want faculty members who are "dynamic" rather than self-contained, I believe that shy teachers add an important element to the mix of faculty personalities.
Students might be surprised to know how nervous some experienced teachers can be at the prospect of a new class. I have taught at least 40 classes, but I still find teaching stressful, particularly after the summer break or a sabbatical. As the first day approaches, I'll begin to worry: Will my voice tremble? Will I sweat profusely? Will I forget my lesson plan? Will I lose their confidence right away?
To deal with such anxieties, I have learned to craft initial classes that make me feel less vulnerable to my students' scrutiny. I try to become a disembodied voice, directing students' attention away from me and toward the material: handouts, readings, film footage, slides, music, and artifacts. As I speak, I try to lose myself in my subject (recapturing my experience of research and writing), refining the content of my lectures until I am free to improvise without anxiety.
By the second or third week of classes, my confidence is renewed by desensitization; I find that I can laugh unselfconsciously and pay more attention to my students' emotional and intellectual needs. The need to treat teaching as a performance is gradually replaced by dialogue as we become more comfortable with each other.
Because of my own struggle with shyness, I recognize that many -- perhaps most -- of my students suffer from it in one context or another. I don't see myself as some kind of role model for shy students, but my experiences help me to understand how any predisposition toward shyness in students is exacerbated by a highly competitive, critical, or hostile environment, a persistent risk of failure and humiliation, and an authority structure that encourages intimidation and other dominance behaviors.
I try not to reward aggression in classroom dialogues. I try to pay attention to the more shy students and give them low-risk opportunities to speak, even if it's only one or two words. In all of my courses, I set up online "discussion boards" on which students can post comments and ask questions. (I am looking forward to equipping the students in my classes with wireless keypads in the near future.)
And, partly because my shyness might make me seem unsmiling and withdrawn, I make an extra effort to be available for one-on-one meetings with students. I invite them to drop in for no particular reason, just so we can become more at ease with each other.
Again and again, I discover engaged, intelligent, articulate young people who are desperate to show me -- by their writing, by their exertions on assignments, by their conversation -- that they can make valuable contributions even if they are silent in class. For good or ill, I know I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't met a few shy professors along the way.