All solitude is selfish

To judge from the amount of quiet buzz that it’s stirred up, Susan Cain’s book praising the virtues of introversion has touched a nerve. (It presumably also has an exceptionally good publicist.) I’ve not yet read it, but going on the basis of her Scientific American interview and her NY Times opinion piece, her basic thesis is so appealing to me that I really ought to be suspicious of it. She argues that our society fetishises teamwork and extrovert behaviour to an extent that goes well beyond their real value, and that we have forgotten the benefits of individual, solitary concentration on a problem or a creative task. From the point of view of a cantankerous blogger with a maths degree, this all barely needs to be pointed out.

Except, of course, that it does. The pathology may be further developed in the US than here in Airstrip One, but it’s been something I’ve been vaguely aware of for years — ever since, in my late teens, I started to fall out with the sincere and generous, but dreadfully hearty, evangelical Christian culture to which many of my friends subscribed. I think the rot shows up nicely in a common linguistic misusage: how frequently have you heard somebody say “antisocial” when they meant “unsociable”? Just as the erosion of the distinction between “refute” and “rebut” suggests a failure to distinguish proof from assertion, the merger of “antisocial” with “unsociable” suggests that for many people, virtue is social and a refusal to come out and play is a kind of moral deficiency.

Higher education is a particularly interesting context for the problem. Much academic work, especially in mathematics and the other humanities, is still substantially introvert in nature: it requires sustained quiet concentration rather than noisy collaboration, and its breakthroughs emerge first in individual minds, sometimes with but sometimes without the stimulus of group discussion. The best academic environments — the old Oxbridge colleges with their mixture of private studies and common rooms; the Newton Institute with its individual offices opening onto communal coffee areas (and let us not forget the blackboards in the loo) — manage to reconcile this need for solitary thought with opportunities to interact when one wants to, and have useful conventions such as the etiquette of “sporting one’s oak” to protect the truce.

Even when we do collaborate, and even for those for whom collaboration is intensely valuable, it’s telling that mathematicians seem to prefer asynchronous communication through email — or, more recently, blog/wiki projects — rather than the synchronous chatter and social networking punted by “visionary” managers and other extroverted twerps. This respect for introversion, though, is at odds with two other powerful influences. One is the necessary side of our jobs that involves teaching and other dissemination of thought; the other is the management culture that increasingly dictates to us the terms on which we must work.

Let’s deal with the less interesting part first. University management culture does not understand the need for solitary thought, because it barely understands the need for thought. Individual offices are an inefficient use of space: grudgingly tolerated as a bribe for senior members of staff, but a dangerous sybarism for others. (I’m lucky in this respect: as a junior lecturer I shouldn’t according to our institutional Space Policy have an office at all, as these are reserved for Senior Lecturers and above. I’m keeping quiet about this oversight.) Open-plan “work” areas are the way of the future, according to the twerps who impose them and who aren’t above supplying wholly mendacious case studies to their colleagues in other institutions to use as ammunition. (To anyone reading: the reason open-plan areas could be introduced successfully in a certain Scottish Law Department is that practically all the teaching staff are practising lawyers with nice big offices elsewhere, who therefore don’t need to do any work on University premises at all. No, I didn’t think they’d mentioned that.) No matter that these spaces are loathed by academic staff and that they preclude serious work or confidential engagement with students, they have been deemed to be Efficient and that’s the end of it.

At the same time, university management — which carries out its own work, such as that is, in a migraine-inducing carousel of meetings and self-distractions — is in love with the Team, the Management Structure, the Working Party. Delegating a task to somebody on a fractionally lower salary is automatically more Efficient than doing it yourself, regardless of the increased cognitive load involved in keeping track of who, at any given moment, is meant to be doing what. Carrying out research as part of a cross-faculty collaborative project is automatically better than doing it yourself. And, of course, heaven forbid that our students should emerge from a degree course more sensible of how to do their own work than of how to pass it off onto another member of the Team…

So much for the management pressures. They have the big battalions behind them; there’s every chance that the tumshies in charge will reduce most of academia to a bad imitation of a Dilbert cube farm and then award themselves vast grants to investigate what went wrong; but at least there’s no reason to accord them any intellectual respect. The tension between the personality needs of teaching and of scholarship, though, seems to be more genuine.

After years of practice, I’ve got to the stage where I can face a new class without dosing myself with sedatives first, and where I think I can impersonate an energetic outgoing type for hours at a time as long as the audience is there and the adrenaline keeps rolling in. But I can’t, and I suspect I never will be able to, come out of this energised or uplifted or anything other than dreadfully exhausted, because like many of the people who reach a reasonable level in mathematics, interacting with human beings drains me rather than recharging me. Likewise, with a sufficient supply of coffee I can dance all day on the avalanche of emails and phonecalls and taps on the door and incessant minor crises that make up the working life of a lecturer; but I take out the change in exhaustion and bad dreams. (“I could be bounded in a nutshell…”) I can be patient with a struggling student for as long as it takes to help them past whatever obstacle they’re tangled in, and I can feel satisfied afterwards that I’ve done my best by them; but bloody hell it leaves me drained. And any of these things leaves me, sometimes for days afterwards, without the mental resources I need to do that rapidly-retreating other part of my job: the sums.

Some mathematicians seem to be genuine extroverts, and thrive on interaction: good luck to you all, and the profession couldn’t cope without you. Others cope with their limited teaching responsibilities by curling into a prickly ball and waiting until the students are lacerated enough to go away. (Gauss is perhaps the epitome of these, to judge by the letter to Bessel in which he complains of “the burdens of a mathematical calling”: having to teach a whole three students, of whom two aren’t well prepared! The hearts of mere mortals remain unhaemorrhaged for him.) But what about the rest of us, who are a little too conscientious to abandon our students and a little too cowardly to deal with them in a way that exposes the dreadful moral weakness of our introversion? Almost inevitably, it seems, we become members of that unlovely species: the self-aware hypocrites.

Philip Larkin, as you might expect, managed to capture the plight of the introvert in a manner that’s simultaneously recognisable and unappealing. For all the self-pity and the occasional misogynistic overtones, Vers de société puts its finger on it:

 … and yet how sternly it’s instilled:

All solitude is selfish. No one now
Believes the hermit with his gown and dish
Talking to God (who’s gone too); the big wish
Is to have people nice to you, which means
Doing it back somehow…

Screwtape, too, had something shrewd to say about the “unselfishness” that starts by acting up to an ideal we don’t really believe in, and ends up stockpiling grudges and a sense that our unselfishness is perpetually overlooked. (I wonder how much less frustrated I’d be by some of my students’ idiocies if I weren’t conscious of all the effort that I make on their behalf and carefully keep hidden from them?)

Another question that occurs to me is what issues arise when an introvert from an introvert-centred academic culture tries to teach students who are in many cases extroverts and who have certainly been educated in an extrovert-dominated culture. There isn’t necessarily a problem: from my own experience as a student, extroverts can be perfectly good teachers of introverts as long as they have the sensitivity to allow us the personal space we need. I can see some problems, though, which aren’t new to anybody but which perhaps the introvert/extrovert distinction brings usefully into relief.

One of these is the thorny matter of collaboration and plagiarism. Notoriously there’s a spectrum of behaviour here which many students have difficulty resolving. If, as I suspect, many of my students have been exposed in school to a culture that presents tasks as an excuse for teamwork, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of them have difficulty with the notion that the task itself is the proximal purpose of the task (and that learning to wrestle with the task oneself is the ultimate purpose). Similarly, if one has internalised the attitude that social interaction is necessarily Good and failure to interact is necessarily Bad, I can believe that it would make it harder to understand why the nasty beardy bloke at the front of the classroom has such a grudge against the people who chirrup away like cicadas throughout his lectures. (Perhaps there’s a connection, too, with the panic that overcomes some of my students at the thought of losing access to their text messages and their Facebook account for an entire hour.)

Maybe this is just a specific instance of a more general principle, which is that real education is always going to be profoundly counter-cultural. There’s something about educated thought that always sits uneasily with the interests of the state or of the tribe: inevitably it will involve not just asking inconvenient questions but asking them in inconvenient or unconventional ways. Mathematics is already pretty heretical in our current society, as I’ve pointed out before, because it stands in opposition to the illogic and numerology that are the conventional tools of political control. Perhaps it is also heretical simply because it requires a place for the quiet solitary thinker, slipping away from the Two Minutes Hate with a throbbing amygdala to stare in dangerous contemplation at an empty sheet of paper.

In that case, should I be trying to rationalise my hypocrisy as the necessary deception of a subversive, donning the costume of an extrovert in order to make contact with students and lead them into the forbidden joys of introversion? (“Hey, kid, try this; first time’s always free…”) Like Ms Cain’s thesis in general, this idea seems almost too appealing for me to trust myself near it. It’s simultaneously the oldest and the most dangerous of heresies for a teacher to indulge, but at the same time it is occasionally true: sometimes it turns out that the way we’ve been doing things was right all along.

Postscript on 13 February 2012. An interesting little sidelight on this topic… A recent paper by Kenna & Berche (2012), also reported in the THE, suggests that there are huge differences between disciplines in what they call the “critical mass” of research groups, i.e. the number of researchers beyond which the quality of the research no longer increases with increasing size. Notably, pure mathematicians seem to be happy hunting in packs of \leq 4, while the critical mass for applied mathematicians is quoted as 13\pm2. In contrast, business / management types like big noisy groups with a critical mass quoted as 48\pm8.

Of course, one could go to town on the methodology of any study like this, particularly over the use of research assessment scores as a proxy for research quality. Nevertheless it’s suggestive: it certainly seems to support the often-made and often-ignored assertion that different disciplines function in different ways, and that the culture of one discipline is not transferable to another. (It’s also interesting, as a gauge of how these issues are perceived and reported, that the first sentence of the THE article is not “Pure mathematicians can be effective in smaller groups than business and management researchers” but “Researchers in business and management are much more communicative than those in pure mathematics or foreign languages”. Evidently those poor linguists just don’t know how to communicate. But I still know who I’d rather talk to…)

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One Response to All solitude is selfish

  1. Pingback: Why do students copy when they have nothing to gain? | New-cleckit dominie

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