In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.
–Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
This past week, I sat in my Contemporary Pedagogy Class thinking about the things I’d read over the weekend, most of which were about attention and multitasking. The irony of a set of readings about attention and multitasking being imbibed by a stressed-out, overstimulated graduate student was not lost on me: if I’m being honest, I was making the slow uphill climb through my assignments in the midst of my grandfather’s blaring audiobooks, my mother’s favorite television shows streaming (not quietly) on the monitor in the other room, and the popping and fizzing sounds of things cooking in the kitchen. My life, and I’m certain, the lives of most students on this campus and many others, is characterized by constant interruptions and long stretches of uninterrupted work time are few and far between, so the idea of being holed up in a study surrounded by books and complete, blessed silence is a distant dream. The relevance of this slice of my life lies its relation to my future students, and the idea that their lives are likely as, er…energetic as mine.
Thinking about the lives of our students in comparison with our own reminds me just how often we forget about the most fundamental elements of being a good teacher (or even a good human): empathy, or at an even more basic level, object permanence. For those who are unaware, the simplest way to explain object permanence is with a childhood game called Peek-A-Boo. Before they learn object permamence, babies think that the adults playing Peek-A-Boo with them are actually gone when they cover their faces (or the babies’ faces). The adult, of course, is aware that people don’t completely disappear just becuase they are no longer visible, but the baby’s cognitive development has yet to reach that stage. Aside from being a hilarious form of entertainment for adults like me, it’s also an important reminder that the students who surround us are also still there even when they leave our classrooms: they have their own homes to go to–just like us, they have families–just like us, and they have worries and concerns and insecurities–just like us.
I found myself getting lost in that train of thought as I read Adam Gorlick’s article about Media Multitaskers and how those who try to do it all are “suckers for irrelevancy”. While trailing off between bouts of meditation on student attention spans and actually reading the article, I noticed the negative tone of the article, the fact that the word “failure” was peppered throughout, and the general feling of condescencion I felt when the daunting task of reading was finally, mercifully over. I couldn’t help but think that the way I felt reading that article, with its prescriptive ideas about how students should and should not perform tasks, was exactly how I felt during my time in the public school system: like an errant child being harangued into compliance.
Perhaps I should discuss the cold, hard numbers, the statistics, the percentage points one’s IQ decreases after long-term use of Google, the difference between grade point averages of students who multitask versus those who do not, but I could not shake the way I felt after reading that article. Perhaps my feelings are mirrored by many of today’s students, most of whom were born into a world chock-full of distractions, from the screens of their electronic devices to the advertisements being injected into, well… everything to the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Given the state of their world, one that we have merely adopted and to which we as instructors (mostly born in the 1990’s or before), are not native. What else can we expect from students who are so overstimulated, besides scattered attention and lack of focus? More importantly, is there a way to reverse this phenomenon, or at least make enough of an impact with our own pedagodical practice to teach them something that they will remember long after class is dismissed?