Teaching in the Age of Distraction

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

I have been thinking a lot lately about Howard Rheingold’s “Attention 101” and “Attention 102” videos, this is somewhat inspired by his recent reposting and discussion as he begins class, but also because I am also beginning a new semester. I think regardless of what discipline or subject matter we teach, we could do with more productive conversation about “student attention” in the classroom and Rheingold’s videos are a good place to start.
I struggle with how much technology to allow in the classroom.

Don’t get be wrong, I have little to no sympathy for educators who decry the current tech generation and their addiction to technology, and wistful longings for a return to a pre-technological learning space. After all, there is no such thing as a technology free classroom, pencils, paper, books and chalkboards, heck even tables, desks and chairs, are technologies. But I struggle with the technology in the classroom question because in a hypermediated multitasking world, I see it as part of my job as an instructor concerned with digital literacy to help students learn not only how to multi-task but also when not to multi-task, that is direct singular focused attention at a project or task. (As a brief tangent, but slightly related everyone who teaches writing should have their students read Cory Doctorow’s post on writing in the age of distraction).

Let’s be clear I think wireless access in a classroom is at this point a necessity, any space which purports to be about the sharing and construction of knowledge that does not have access to the internet seems to me to be a severely crippled space (yes I am looking at you MLA conference planners). But I also realize that introducing wireless access to the classroom brings with it a host of possible distractions for the students, and that I see it in part at least as my responsibility to address in the classroom (even if it is simply for me to mention that these distractions exist). I know that with computers in the classroom that some students will be surfing the web, updating their facebook status, studying for another class, playing WoW, playing solitaire (seriously folks can’t you find a more engaging simple game?), or, the ubiquitous nightmare example, looking at porn.

I also realize that for many of my students having access to the internet enhances their ability to discourse about the matter at hand. Many of my students take notes on their laptops, using programs that help them take notes in what is for them a much more productive way than paper and pen, some even have their notes posted live as the class progresses either to a wiki or a blog (the equivalent of live-blogging the class). What is more during a discussion students often use the internet as a giant reference book to query for information or check the facts about an assertion I have made (I often say in class, “I’m not sure look it up on Wikipedia” which sure enough usually within seconds a student has the request page . . .) or to offer an example. Indeed this is the very type of literacy I want my students to develop, how to use the internet to enhance and contribute to your creative and critical endeavors. This is why the reaction of many professors, to demand that students shut-off the computers, or ban cell-phones and laptops strikes me as entirely the wrong response. Indeed realistically little could be done to “demand” the attention of students. Sans digital distractions students still have minds that wander or get tired (this happens to professional academics as well, how many of us honestly pay attention through three 20 minute papers at academic conferences?), they think about what their plans are for the weekend or other matters that seem more pressing than whatever we are currently discussing. And sans some Orwellian mind control device there would be no way to monitor students attention. What strikes me as different about this moment though is that the tool of inquiry (the computer) is also the tool of distraction (and in many of my classes is also the object of inquiry.)

Part of me is of the mind that if students are focusing their attention elsewhere so be it, what do I care, who does it hurt. Except for the extreme cases (looking at porn) the students are only “hurting themselves,” (it is not really distracting to others) and will most likely reap the consequences later when they have to beg to borrow someone else’s notes, work harder on the assignment, or just plain receive a lower grade (as in all of my classes participation is a component of the final grade). Call this the business model approach, in the business world if you don’t pay attention in meetings (generally speaking) your work will suffer, and you will most likely endure consequences or at the very least not reap the rewards of labor (i.e. promotion). But, I don’t view my classroom as a business space, and I certainly don’t view my role as an educator to be to train students to be better workers so this model has little purchase with me.

Part of me also thinks that a large part of the responsibility lies with instructors. Lets be honest many instructors are just down right boring, like the ones who read from lecture notes or worse use PowerPoint presentations riddled with text and bullet points. If I can’t entice my students to pay attention, convince them that what I have to say really matters, maybe they should just tune-me out. After all, this is what I do. If I am listening to a lecture, or a presentation, or reading another scholars work and it bores me, if I am unconvinced that it matters I just tune it out, stop paying attention, or put the article aside.

But there is another issue here, and that is what it means to be a member of a community, to participate in a creative and critical discussion. And this is one of the things that I see as my role as an educator: to teach students how to participate in an academic community, to both model this behavior and illicit it from them. Honestly it is downright disrespectful to not pay attention during class, to ignore the instructor and more damagingly to ignore ones peers, in effect saying I know better than everyone else here and have nothing to learn from anyone (even if what they “know better” is a “false” assumption that the matters being discussed are not worth paying attention to). Honestly I spend a great deal of time preparing for class, and most of my students invest substantial time prior to class as well, to simply blow off all of that effort seems ill-informed. (And I should say here that this is more than just the problem of the commons, or the 80/20 rule, although this also factors in).

So this is my conundrum, how to teach students to participate in a learning community without demanding that they do. Which brings me back to Howard’s prompt. I really like what he does in the second video, demonstrating for students what the classroom looks like from his perspective, (and to be sure one of the problems here is how the classrooms are designed, but that is a matter for a much different and longer post, Foucault never did write that book about educational institutions). But, and here is where I want to progress more slowly or question Howard’s framing of the question. He says that it is about “paying attention” and “looking at the person who is talking.” I take it he primarily means not looking at the screen, or looking at cell phones, i.e. demonstrating that one is paying attention by looking at that to which you are paying attention. For the most part I would agree, but on several occasions when this has come up, part of me is resistant to this reduction of the problem.

Why? Because eye-contact ain’t all it is cracked up to be. In the first case the notion of eye-contact is culturally specific. There are entire cultures where eye contact specifically with someone who is speaking is considered aggressive, and as someone (sorry I forgot whom) pointed out on twitter the other day, eye contact not only privileges a certain Western cultural form of discourse but also one predicated on a pre-defined “normal” social behavior (some autistic youth pay rapt attention without, indeed on the condition that they not make eye contact). In a former life I was a camp director and one of the smarter people I ever meant observed that saying “look at me when I talk to you,” is one of the worst mistakes that adults make. Why? Because if you say that, then what is the student/child thinking? “I must look, make sure I look, don’t break eye contact . . .” In fact thinking a host of things that have nothing to do with paying attention to the content of what you are saying. Eye-contact in this regard is just another way of demanding attention, reproducing an old hierarchy that privileges certain modes of interaction, and structures, “all eyes face forward.”

Okay at this point I should be fair to Howard and admit that he is using “eye-contact” as a stand-in for being fully present, paying attention, and that I don’t think his musings are not sensitive to difference. Again this is where things get complicated, for what I am interested in teaching students is how they can each in their own way pay attention, become deep critical learners, who can be fully present in the academic community at hand, but how can I measure this? Is it even possible to measure this? Especially when all our measurements are so steeped in cultural, social, and historic biases (what’s with always privileging vision?). Do we even know what it means to pay attention when we move into these hypermediated spaces? Or are me just asking them to pay attention in old ways, reproduce old behaviors that might not only be outmoded, but not entirely useful for everyone? For one of the things that I love about these digital spaces is the ways in which they enable a host of learners to participate enable, participation from people once excluded. But, if we measure participation by old standards I think we continue to loose what is most promising about these digital spaces. (And if it isn’t clear already, I am not really talking here about eye-contact . . . it’s only just a stand in for the large issue.)