When news pundits and politicians criticize remote learning as an “across-the-board disaster,” I bristle. I have a different take: introverted, shy, and socially anxious law students can thrive in remote law classrooms.
As an introverted professor, I’m completely pumped to start teaching my new cohort of 1Ls next week—fully online. All summer, my legal writing faculty colleagues and I have been attending virtual conferences and boot camps to become better versed in online teaching techniques, and to increase our dexterity with remote teaching technology. While participating in various webinars, Zooms, and virtual training sessions, I realized something about myself: as a naturally quiet person who likes to think before I speak, and often needs a pause for contemplation before jumping into the fray, I love the “participation” options afforded in remote settings that simply are not available in person.
Live classrooms and meetings favor extroverts and natural talkers. The expectation is that we all should be ready to speak at a moment’s notice, champing at the bit to be heard. Every time I hear U2’s lyrics—“It’s hard to listen while you preach”—I think of education’s (unfortunate) bias toward loudness. In remote classrooms, however, the variety of communication channels allows quiet individuals to amplify their voices authentically rather than jostling for airtime.
Introverts and extroverts have different (natural) ways of managing stimuli, energy, and interpersonal interactions. While extroverts think aloud, introverts process thoughts, concepts, and solutions to problems internally. We like to vet and test ideas inside our heads before sharing them with others. When we do speak, it’s because we have something to say, and have thought it through. We don’t speak just for the sake of speaking. In fact, many of us prefer writing to speaking.
We also resist interrupting other people, and being interrupted. “Regular” in-person meetings—with multiple competing voices and stimuli—can feel chaotic for some of us. The pressure to chime in because everyone else has already spoken, or to interrupt someone to assert a point, can feel unpleasant and unnatural.
Some of us also grapple with shyness or social anxiety—which is different from introversion. Shyness stems from a fear of judgment, criticism, exclusion, or rejection. When I was a law student being cold-called in a live law classroom almost three decades ago, I feared judgment by my teachers and peers. I blushed; my heart raced; sweat poured down my neck. I worried my classmates would think I didn’t belong.
I did belong. I just needed time to learn the new language of law and to experiment with amplifying my voice authentically. Let’s take that time now.
Remote learning settings give us—naturally quiet individuals—the power of time to think, and technical tools to convey our messages in more effective ways than the live classroom.
In a Zoom environment, instead of waving our hand in the air (which, for introverts, can feel like we are interrupting the class flow), we can activate the hand-raise feature, letting the teacher know we have something to contribute at a natural pause in the conversation. We can articulate our thoughts and ideas in the “chat” feature—an ideal venue for introverts who prefer sharing ideas in writing rather than speaking. Asynchronous classes provide us the time we crave to work independently and contemplate complex legal issues before sharing our ideas (happily in writing). From the comfort of our homes, we can contemplate our readings first, and then contribute ideas and insights through discussion boards, polls, reflection assignments, and emails to our professors.
Remote classrooms also canreduce the overstimulation and distractions present in live venues that can disrupt quiet individuals’ thinking. Online settings can help decrease social intimidation that hinders some of us from participating. As we experiment with alternate communication channels, we develop trust and confidence in our advocacy voices and eventually will be able to step into other participation arenas with fortitude.
If you are a naturally quiet law student, my advice is: embrace remote learning as an venue in which we absolutely flourish. In fact, we already have been flourishing. Since the pandemic started, teachers across multiple levels of education have reported an increase in participation and communication by quiet students in remote classrooms. Imagine how much more impactful we will be in virtual settings now that we are becoming more skilled and comfortable with our technology!
Of course, this is law school, so inevitably we will encounter scenarios that make us nervous. Here are some suggestions for navigating nerves toward class participation.
Experiment with Alternate Communication Channels Early in the Semester to Demonstrate Engagement
In the first few weeks of school, make an effort to try out multiple communication modalities (hand-raising, “chat,” discussion boards, polling, emailing, office hours) so your professors see you engaging with the substantive material. You will build a “track record” of participation and intellectual interface that will help put later cold-calls and other classroom “performances” in context for you and your teachers. Plus, you will start to learn the legal language and be able to test out your ideas in lower-stakes settings.
Also, listen to the questions your professors ask in class, and see if you can discern a pattern. Start writing down the professors’ questions, and then ask yourself the same progression of questions as you do the reading for the next class.
Understand and Prepare Mentally and Physically for Public Speaking Jitters
Let’s face it: some of us get nervous speaking aloud even from the comfort of our homes, sitting on our couches in our favorite sweatpants. (I wrote an article about that phenomenon this summer). Here are some tips that work for me:
- Mental Reboot: Take a moment to listen to and transcribe your mental soundtrack. If you hear and see negative statements about your abilities, stop for a second. Ask yourself, are these statements really true? No! I guarantee they are not. Next, restate what is true. You’ve done the reading. You’ve thought about the legal concepts on a deep level. You’re learning a new legal language. It’s impossible to speak it perfectly this soon. You’re entitled to have an opinion. You’re entitled to have a voice. Your voice matters. Now, go! (It might help to write down these accurate messages about yourself and tape them to your computer.)
- Physical Recalibration: Conduct a physical inventory. How does your body automatically react when you anticipate a cold-call or another performance moment? Mine tries to get small: my shoulders cave in; I cross my arms and legs; I twist inward like a pretzel. Unfortunately, this natural self-protective response blocks my oxygen, blood, and energy flow. I blush fiercely; I sweat; my heart thuds against my ribcage. Instead, let’s re-open our physical frames. Sitting on our couch or desk chair, we can firmly place both feet on the ground, in a balanced stance. We can consciously shift our shoulders back, sit tall, open up our arms and hands, and breathe. Combining these simple physical adjustments with our new mental soundtrack works! (Check out Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on “power poses,” choose your favorite pose, and practice it before remote classes. Find a picture of your favorite athlete, singer, dancer, actor, or performer doing a “power pose” and tape it to your computer.).
Rocking a Cold-Call
If you are cold-called in a remote classroom, first remind yourself that you have done the work. If you experiment with alternative communication channels like the “chat,” hand-raising, discussion boards, polling, emails, and office hours, you will have already built a track record over the first few weeks of school. Also, you have done the reading.
In a cold-call moment, quickly launch your new mental soundtrack—ideally taped to your computer screen. Next, recalibrate your seated stance. Place both feet on the floor; shift your shoulders back, and take a few, deep, fresh breaths.
Yes, it would be awesome if we nailed every answer in a cold-call, but sometimes we are not as eloquent with our new legal language as we may like to be. Who cares? Our goal is to stay in the conversation and demonstrate to the professor that we indeed did do the homework, we have thought about the concepts, and we want to contribute. When preparing for class, think about the “theme” of each case or statute you are discussing (like a hashtag). Even if you are not sure of the exact answer to the professor’s questions during a cold-call, you can show that you have prepared for class by referring to what you do know: your “theme,” the facts of a case, the elements of a rule, the policy (or competing public policies) underlying the rule. Try to stay in the dialogue even if you feel nervous. (Good teachers will help you do that.)
Also, let’s keep these experiences in context and perspective. When I was a law student, I used to build up classroom dialogues in my head like they were as big a deal as the Super Bowl halftime show. A cold-call is just a dialogue between two humans (and now we are not even sitting in the same room). You will rock it. And if you think of something later that you wish you had said in the moment, drop it in the “chat,” add it to a Discussion Board, or email your teacher and let them know. You are continuing the conversation.
One last piece of advice: you do not ever need to “fake it till you make it.” Be your quiet, real, amazing self. If you get nervous, admit it. Say it out loud. Other anxious students will be immensely grateful you acknowledged this reality. Then, we help each other. (By the way, intellectual humility is incredibly cool).
As we embark on a new semester in the remote learning arena, let’s craft a new model of communication and participation—one characterized by quiet thinking before speaking, active listening to one another, and authentically amplifying our voices. I can’t wait to hear yours.