Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Multitasking

...like everything fashionable these days, is good for information and bad for wisdom. People who say they’re good at it are probably fooling themselves, and it’s certainly not good for them. Nobody really pays attention anymore (except Tiger Woods)!

Discussions - 16 Comments

Someone will probably tell me that this is a sign of some sort of weakness (but I think--if it is--it's probably a fairly universal weakness among mothers) but I have found that since I have had kids I simply cannot stand to be doing things in silence. The only exception to this rule is reading . . . but even then, I find that it is somehow better if I read with soft music playing off in the distance. When the kids are off at school and I am doing work around the house, I listen to books. This probably means that the housework suffers a bit . . . but the thought of doing it in silence or focusing exclusively on laundry is both boring and unsettling. Although computers and multimedia may have ushered in the phenomenon of "multitasking" at the workplace, I don't think "multitasking" is a new phenomenon with mothers. Neither is the sneaking suspicion that everything we do is rather half-baked, incomplete or imperfect. And yet, somehow we all survive . . . dinner appears, clothes are clean, homework completed, etc.

Though I must confess to having recourse to considerable distraction myself (watching games on TV while I grade papers, etc.), as a teacher I find this degradation of the ability to attend to one important thing a great concern. Visiting the classroom of a colleague, I could observe students taking lecture notes on their computers, but at the same time: reviewing photos, playing solitaire, messaging -- all these at once, and all while my colleague tried to explain Plato's allegory of the cave! Must we accommodate this, or are we obliged to confront it? ... Sorry about introducing the narrow concerns of a professor.

It sounds like these students were too busy watching their own shadows to bother with those discussed by Plato! I am glad that the widespread use of computers for note-taking did not emerge while I was either a student or an active professor! Along with the other distractions you note here, Ralph, I can't stand that constant "clicking" noise as I'm trying to engage in a conversation. On the other hand . . . I'm not sure checking email is as fruitless an occupation for a daydreamer as doodling can be.

Ralph, if you're collegue can't hold interest, then I suggest some serious refresher training. My first year Philosophy teacher at 'Nova would put his own mother out in about fifteen minutes. But that was him, not the subject.

You're collegue could simply ban the use of computers during class, and prohibit the use of all handhelds as well, thus insisting on the tried and true method, of actually taking notes. Moreover, that teacher could make sure that the students know that the key questions during the exam will derive from information conveyed not in the textbooks, but from his her lectures. That would be an excellent way of making sure you get and hold attention. Does your collegue modulate her voice? Modulation of voice is essential for anyone delivering a lecture. Does she walk around, does she move amongst the students, making eye contact, asking rhetorical questions. Is there any Socratic element to her lectures? There's all kinds of ways of creating a situation where it's impossible to mentally wander off the topic. It's as I said, perhaps that collegue needs some refresher training.

I had a Southern belle as a professor, and she was tough too; most articulate woman I ever met. She wouldn't have tolerated all of that nonsense in her class, not for a minute, but then again, she was fascinating. There was open speculation that I had a thing for her, --------------- and that speculation wasn't altogether wrong. It's as I said, she was a REAL Southern belle, from Georgia.

Of course she couldn't hold a candle to another woman I'm thinking of --------- and often thought of since.

Julie, since becoming a mother, I have craved silence. I love it and only break it as I must.

As to multi-tasking housework, it is the only way to get everything done. The machines help and can keep everything in a house humming alone while we tend them and other things.

I knit while doing anything that does not require my hands; reading for study seems to require my hands, reading for pleasure does not. Writing requires thought and silence. Any distraction destroys focus - evidence of my bad character, according to Rosen's article. I accept the judgment. I have one heck of a time regaining my focus once it is broken.

That's how I might get here. The phone rings, the cat bites my ankle, the dryer buzzes or the rumbles in my head on other topics than the one requiring my concentration get too loud and I check for email, read the news or come to see what you guys have to say. My thoughts go undigested and I get a mental nausea. It is a gluttony of the mind, to take in more than we can handle. We think of it as mental exercise and that's not it at all. I had better get to work.

I've encountered the same problem in my classes, Ralph, and since I teach at a technical institute we can't ban computers in the classroom and it's likely they're even more ubiquitous. I do tend to walk around the classroom and that in itself keep students on their toes and when I notice a student clearly using the computer for something other than notes (their countenances often give it away) I call them on it; you don't need to do that terribly often to set a precedent. I do have a ban on cell phones---no policy against that.

The few laptops do not bother me. They have been occasional. A student who used to roll his joints behind an open notebook bothered me. By the time I felt I really had to say something, he stopped coming to class. His brother told me their parents had forced him into a drug rehab program. I wondered if he took to rolling his pot at the dinner table; he really was obsessed.

I've seen distinguished scholars use their laptops to do anything but take notes on the power-point presentation by some leading expert at some public government meetings. I notice myself sneaking out my new blackberry to do the same. I guess they do need to be banned, as does power-point in serious classes in the humanities, philosophy, etc. I multitask because I suffer from incurable ADD more than anything else. I'm amazed when I catch myself really absorbed in something in the present. Because I'm get worse and worse at sustaining that, it takes longer and longer to do anything important. Julie and Kate obviously have wonderful characters and real responsibilities; theirs is the multitasking of old, which really isn't covered by the overly anal article.

Peter's right--there's a difference between the multitasking born of necessity and the culture of incessant distraction. That being said, I also just recently bought a blackberry for myself and sometimes just have to turn it off to get anything done. It has also seriously increased my enjoyment at college meetings.

The only internet multitasking that really bothers me during class is the kind that draws the attention of others--sometimes I'll notice a group of students craning their necks to see a webite someone is visiting. I often end up with a unpaid fact checker too who compares everyting I say to wikipedia information.

And powerpoint has probably done more to drive students to distraction than laptops....

Yes . . . there is a special circle of hell waiting for the person who invented the "Power Point" presentation. I miss chalk. And real chalk that gets you dirty while you're talking and thinking . . . not those stupid dry erase boards. It's all too neat, tidy, sterile and boring. I mean chalk dust all over your clothes isn't exactly on a par from the mud of a recently dug ditch . . . but it was something solid--some physical symbol of effort. And I remember some wonderful and engaging discussions about the sheer badness (in the real and not the new-fangled sense of the term) of some of my professors chalk board "outlines" and discussions. Schramm, in particular, was famous for the odd line thrown up onto the board at the crescendo of an argument (representing God knows what) . . . the wonder is that when it was all over, we had all followed along and knew exactly what the line had meant. We all had such a line in our notebooks as well . . .

See! That's how you keep students engaged, by writing notes all over the board, idiosyncratically connected; the student absolutely HAS to follow the lecture or he will miss all the vital connections. Dynamic chaos keeps the crowd connected. I hadn't thought of it like that.

At the end of one lecture (on the elements of a story) I turned and asked, "Did you follow all of that?" Someone said, "Come back here," and I did and and the board (dry erase and multi-colored: as markers had given out, I had grabbed others) was an absurd web. So I walked back to the front and retraced the mess for them. It was a huge board and I had not had to erase much, but it was not orderly at all. Keep them off-balance and they do not have time for electronic devices. How happy I am to read that disorganization and dysgraphia is actually of benefit to my students.

I have been to meetings with my husband at small-business organizations where half the room is eyes-down looking at Blackberries. The sense that they are saying, "This is a waste of my time." hangs in the room like cigarette smoke would have done twenty years ago.

Dan:
The teacher I'm talking about is a good teacher and also a rather "popular" one (not me). The classroom has close to 200 students in it.
Of course teachers have a certain obligation to be engaging, but (at some institutions at least) the scale has tipped too far the other way, as reflected in your implicit expectations.
"Here we are now, entertain us!"

Now, I have to step into this Powerpoint discussion. Yes, you guessed it, I'm an offender. I have lousy handwriting, and don't like to write on a board: I don't like the sound, or the dust. More importantly: just what is degrading about projecting, say, a quotation from the Federalist or from Plato that one wants to focus on and unpack. Or, why not give the students an outline of the points one plans to cover? Or, even, a picture of Machiavelli when one is introducing Machiavelli. I just can't see why this neat technology shouldn't be useful, as long as it is subordinated to worthy educational ends. Set me straight.

You caught me Ralph. Of course, you're right. In the right hands such innovations are a blessing to both student and teacher. The problem for me, I guess, is that mine are the wrong hands. I completely admit that I am antediluvian in this and that, for the most part, it is a prejudice not founded in anything other than an aversion to figuring out how to do some new-fangled (and to me) boring thing. Now, I do like these classrooms where you can pull up stuff on the internet and show it on the overhead--but then the "presentation" is already done for you. Powerpoint is all too orderly and detailed for me. And even a great presentation in Powerpoint, presented by the wrong presenter, is deadly boring. Haven't you noticed how it can become a crutch for some professors and replace engagement with the students. If the professor is the sort who feels compelled to get through every single note he has prepared for a particular lesson, he should avoid this tool like the plague.

I don't think an expectation of conversation and engagement in the classroom on the part of the students is the same thing as saying, "Here I am, entertain me . . ." however, I do think that many folks use Powerpoint as a kind of cheap entertainment in the classroom. Most often, however, I've seen Powerpoint used in a pretty inept and lame manner . . . it always reminded me of the kids who put a lot of effort into doing a fancy cover for their reports in school because the substance inside was so thin.

I studied calculus, which is rather boring, from a guy who some of you might recall, he was the enormously successful basketball coach at Widener University, coached his team to several Division III championships, and the guy was fascinating, his name was Alan Rowe. The whole class, all of his classes for that matter, everybody at the school too, simply called him Coach.

He engaged, he modulated his voice as often as he switched his defenses during a game.

And as for his players, he was absolutely ferocious to them during class. Everybody else got off compared to them, who were absolutely grilled, every day.

So I don't subscribe to the notion that a teacher trying to capture the attention of his students is necessarily trying to "entertain" them. There's a sharp distinction between "entertainment" and having undivided attention.

I was also lectured by First Sgt. Taylor, who I can assure you, was NOT entertaining, but he had everyone in the class following his every word. Of course that's because he was trying to teach us how to engage the enemy, destroy him, emerge alive, and repeat the same process again, and again, and again. Of course all of us respected the First Sgt.

I've no prob with a teacher using powerpoints, or computers, or projectors. That was simply a suggestion for your collegue who has probs maintaining the attention of his students. A teacher can use computers and simultaneously ban the use thereof for his students. And as for handwriting, I never had decent handwriting, and 4 semesters of Russian sure as hell didn't help.

My objection to powerpoint is that students will either look at the book or look at the screen. I'd rather they read the quote from THE FEDERALIST in the actual book etc. But if you have 200 students--which is very contrary to nature--then powerpoint might be the least bad option. I've never had 200 students at once and wouldn't be good in that "setting." I even only write on the board with fake spontanteity and as part of a joke.

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