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January 15, 2019 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Introversion in the Age of Relentless Academic Self-Promotion

I am, by all accounts, a bit of an introvert. I’m awkward at groupings of more than four people and dislike parties of any size. I’ve made a career out of feeling more comfortable around books than people. And, in terms of my career, I’m nervous about every first day of class and don’t like talking about my research and writing in contexts larger than a group dinner (and even then constantly worry about talking too much). I can be comfortable — sort of — in the role of lecturing, giving a colloquium talk, or doing fieldwork, where it’s not about me or I have a performative frame that I’m comfortable with. Even writing this is difficult; if you look at the archives of what I’ve written about in the past, even the personal stuff is pretty clinical in its detachment.

dad-watching-from-the-old-lodge.jpg

That’s a beaver hiding in a lodge. I’ve borrowed this from Cheryl Reynolds and Martinez Beavers.

But I started thinking about my introverted tendencies lately because I found myself writing about myself in two book manuscripts in ways that I hadn’t previously. The first, about neurological disorders, had me brushing up my personal history with dementia and sensory and speech impairments. The second, about speculative fiction and social theory, had me dipping into my past to think about what I was reading, where I was reading it, and why it made sense in its moment. Those experiences, in turn, got me thinking about the intimacy of getting to know an author through the written word, a relationship that’s uneven, but something that I have enjoyed as a reader throughout my life. In the age of social media, that relationship-building seems more apparent on Twitter than it does in books and articles, as the demands of neoliberal self-presentation heighten self-promotion in one medium and performed objectivity in the other.

Around the same time, I was watching an academic friend using social media to promote a forthcoming book. He tweeted several times each day, on and off the topic of the book, and garnered tons of likes and DMs. Knowing him personally, I knew he was more like me than not — a bit of an introvert, but more seasoned through decades of experience. He was able to overcome those introversion tendencies to engage — at least unidirectionally — with interested readers. I bought the book — and I’m sure a lot of his other followers and friends did too — but I’m not sure that I would have pre-ordered it if it hadn’t been for his relentless use of social media leading up to its publication…

Which, in turn, had me thinking back to a conversation with a publicist when my first book came out. She recommended that I open a Twitter account, set up a Facebook author page, and tweet five times each day and post on the Facebook page once daily. I think I managed that for about a week or two before I couldn’t bear to do it anymore. It took me years to not feel bad about failing my publicist in that way, and years more to feel comfortable using blogging as a substitute for the publicity machine that she suggested.

Part of my being okay with my failure at self-promotion is that — like so many academics — I’m not in it for book sales. But I am in the profession for the conversation (and, since I’m what psychologists call “disagreeable,” the arguments too, but those seem harder to find). So when I find myself drawn to self-promotion (usually through Twitter, since self-promotion seems to be 50% of the medium and we’ve collectively agreed to that), it’s usually because I so want to have a conversation about something I’ve just published.

After six months of thinking about this post, I finally committed to write it — not because I felt like I had profound insights into my introverted self and how to manage an ethical and sensible web-presence, but because I didn’t. (The one tiny bit of advice I’ll share, and this is from Jean Langford, is to “pick your fidget” — if you’re going to fidget during a presentation or while teaching because it relieves stress, just pick one thing to fidget with. I empty my pockets and get rid of any easy distractions just in case, which means my fidgeting is usually confined to moving my feet in particular ways.) But I know I’m not alone. So many people are drawn to academic work precisely because they’re introverted, and based on what I can tell from the internet, they seem to deal with the same challenges that I do, albeit with variations. On some level, it’s possible to succeed being an introvert in the academy (since, it seems in a world of introverts, being able to manage one’s introversion is a real asset). On another level, maybe it goes to show how in a world of relatively introverted professionals, a little performed extroversion goes a long way.

That said, whenever I do the obligatory self-promotion that comes with an article, a  colloquium talk, a conference presentation, a book, a podcast — whatever — I still struggle with being uncomfortable about talking about any success, however marginal. Part of that discomfort is based on a deep knowledge of the contingency of any success — from growing up relatively privileged, to the luck of the draw with peer reviewers working out for me, and everything in-between. There’s no mitigating those benefits, other than through their subversion wherever and however I can.

I’ve also come to realize that building intimacy between authors and readers is not just a mechanism for selling books and driving downloads of an article, but also a necessary political praxis. So often it is women, people of color, and minorities who are compelled to give an account of themselves, and white, heterosexual men sit silently by. I have always been interested in the institutional ethnography of the US academy, which this blog has represented, but I’m increasingly interested in the affective qualities of the institution and how it shapes people (hence a new little book about peer review [which, I guess the mention of is a little self-promotional]).

I’m still struggling with wanting to delete this whole post. I’m going to accept that as an indication that I should do the opposite.

One Comment

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  1. Cal Taylor / Jan 15 2019 4:00 pm

    This is an insightful, timely, and relatable post. Glad you posted it.

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