Inattention in the Classroom and The Cult of Multitasking

On reading my previous post on laptops and inattention in the classroom, I was struck by a nagging feeling that I was missing something that absolutely needed to be said. It came to me when I reviewed what I do when stuck in meetings or presentations where I don’t have a stake in the outcome or when, in my view at least, I am in grave danger of falling asleep in my seat. Um, oops. Do I get off task and turn from taking notes to checking other things or working on another project? That is a hard question to answer publicly because in order to do so, I have to admit that every single aspect of academia (that includes meetings) does not fully engage me every second of the time. How can I do that? What can be more important than being completely in the present? Well, sometimes many things, and after a lifetime of being praised for multitasking, it can be hard to turn that part of my personality off.

My first response to that admittedly self-asked question is to make excuses, to hedge. Sometimes I have to juggle too many things. Sometimes there is a deadline that must be met, no matter how unrealistic. Sometimes the presentation honestly is something I already know, or worse, something I know more about than the presenter (this happens most in tech presentations meant for non-tech folk that I have to go to anyway). Do I multitask? Well….only in the most positive sense of the term?

I remember going to something I won’t identify here where I ended up in a presentation that was very, very good but also very, very familiar. I also had to give a surprise presentation myself in two hours ( I was the one faced with the surprise, thus my lack of preparation). There I was with a 45 minute block of time and a shiny new 1st generation iPad and wireless, just crying out to be used for uploading a finished presentation to Apple’s precursor to iCloud. I pretended to take notes and put together a Keynote presentation instead. The result was I was prepared for my presentation and I paid much more attention to the ongoing presentation.

Wait. Could this be connected to how students with laptops get off task in the classroom? Surely not. Surely my concerns are so much more important, or…maybe they aren’t. So, it could be the habit of multitasking that gets in the way of classroom attentiveness for students who convulsively check Facebook or the latest Tumblr. It could also be the pressure of other things that need to be done and the feeling that they are marking time during lectures. I acknowledge the validity of those feelings, but I see a difference between their desire to multitask and what I did during that (did I say it was a good presentation? It was.) presentation that was on a topic I know very, very well. They, on the other hand, don’t know the material yet and need to pay attention. They need to recognize that their disinterest is not a good measure of the class’s importance (or lack).

As students, they paid tuition for the course because they need it and don’t already know it. Here’s what I see as an almost laughable example of this. One of my colleagues, whom I respect so much as a scholar and teacher, is retiring at the end of this semester. She is at the height of her powers as a scholar, but has medical problems that are winning over her desire to stay in the classroom. The chances of any of the students in her class knowing so much about the subject that they don’t need to pay attention is ridiculous. I have had three courses in her specialty area, but I would love to sit in; I would learn from her–guaranteed. However, over time she has noticed laptop users off task and worse, some resist her attempts to get them back on task, with the claim that what they were doing was more important than the class. This kind of student shortsightedness and at times, rudeness, is timeworn and the laptop only adds a disguise, like the old chemistry notes folded in the textbook ploy. This is one example. I can think of another reason for what seems like inattention though, one that is more justified.

Going back to my student years, I have to admit I was not a notetaker, a fault that I was taken to task for many times. In fact, if I had a quarter for how many teachers and counselors admonished me and told me that I couldn’t possibly succeed in school without learning to be a good notetaker, I’d never be short a quarter for the parking meter again. What they did not realize, being notetakers, is that every time I tried to write everything down, I got so involved in writing it down that I missed the importance of what was being said. I simply could not do both. Telling me to learn how to do both was no help. So, my strategy was to doodle, look alert, and participate in class discussion as much as a good introvert could. The important part was the doodling. I could look at pieces of it and use it as a mnemonic to remember time, space, and content. Notes distracted me, I think now, because they demanded that I process what was going on too soon. Doodling looked like I was on task, and indeed, kept me on task.

What can the laptop notetaker who is really not a notetaker do? Doodling is not an option. Graphic creation on the laptop takes different muscle movements than notetaking, and as an Illustrator and Paint user, I believe it takes too much thinking for it to be a doodling replacement. It is possible that the Facebook surfing and Solitare games are an attempt to replace the doodling function for non-notetakers.

From the viewpoint of a legitimate non-notetaker, there may be an iPad app that is as mindless as pencil on notebook paper, but I haven’t found it yet. Maybe I should look harder. For now, the graphics apps and software I know are not unobtrusive enough. As much of a tech lover as I am, I think that non-notetakers need to stay old school and stick to an old fashioned notebook. That way they can stay on task by doodling and not fall prey to online things (Facebook, Twitter, Feminist Ryan Gosling) that pull their attention away from what is going on in the classroom. For those who are simply not paying attention because they think the class is less important than say, another class, they need to rethink that. It may take a few years, but I just bet that for those who paid attention, Shakespeare or Austen will stick to their bones and make them think and make connections in a way that equations cannot.

 

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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