Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One thing at a time

We already know that multitasking — trying to listen to music, reply to e-mail, and read Wittgenstein's Tractatus all at once — is dangerous and unproductive. But it appears likely that it's a bad academic habit too. This isn't surprising really: Fully comprehending anything complex, be it philosophy, biology, or Shakespeare, takes time and attention, a fact that seems to be lost on younger people, who are very confident that their multitasking helps them learn!

The question then: How should we philosophy teachers respond to our students' multitasking habits?

Obviously, there's a "classroom management" issue here. Not being one for lots of rules and punishments, I'm thinking of addressing this on the first day of class and on my syllabus, with a statement along these lines:
The current vogue for 'multitasking' notwithstanding, I believe that I would not be upholding my part of the educational partnership if I attempted to check my e-mail, call home, or text my friends while overseeing our class meetings. I hope that you will do your part to uphold this partnership as well.
But the issues here extend beyond the classroom proper. They are larger cultural issues, intersecting with concerns about literacy, attentiveness, and delayed gratification. Like it or not, these are crucial "academic" values or habits. Any ideas about how to help instill them?


  1. I had a professor as an undergrad who made a big deal, not only of assigning reading, but of assigning ways of reading. For instance, when he assigned Descartes meditation, he had an elaborate list of recommendations for how we could properly section ourselves off in order to enter into a properly meditative space.

    Naturally, such advice would go ignored by many students, but it may be a start.

  2. I'm not sure we should respond. Your policy statement is well intentioned, and I see it being peace of mind for us instructors. But I can imagine that the students will not heed your sage advice.

    The problem is much deeper than what we can handle in the classroom, as you point out. We have to change our cultural mindset -- if that's even conceivable or understandable. And instant gratification has to be quashed with extreme prejudice.

    People have promoted a view in which "being ADD" (though not officially diagnosed by a professional) or "multitasking," is a virtue because other folks seem to think we're more productive when we're on the phone, computer, driving, etc. The honest truth is that we're no more busy than a gerbil in a stationary wheel. We may look busy, but it's all smoke and mirrors.

    I tried an experiment a few semesters ago in an attempt to address the "multitasking" issue. I went to class, and I announced that their would be a quiz. Since I thought (correctly) that some of them hadn't read the piece for the day, I decided to give them 30 minutes to prepare for the quiz. They could read the piece, talk with other students, or take notes, but they couldn't leave the room. The quiz would take them no longer than 20 minutes -- 5 questions, including two short-answer, and multiple-choice or true/false questions. When the 30 minutes started, I shut the classroom's door. I turned on the computer, turned up the volume of the computer, and played some music on the computer (something like Metallica). Then I called a friend on my cell phone and talked to her for a while. Fellow instructors came by and knocked on the door (of course because I asked them). We talked in the doorway for a bit.

    After about 10 minutes of this, a student finally raised his hand and said it was nearly impossible for him to focus when so much was going on around him.

    It seemed that when the stakes were high enough (i.e., for a quiz grade), students felt they needed to concentrate, without any distractions. I find it surprising that students don't think reading material before class is as important as preparing for an assessment. If we could change this perspective, I imagine "multitasking" will become a thing of the past. But this is probably wishful thinking on my part.


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