Cultivating Attention When Distraction is Our Default

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Photo by April Lidinsky, 2023Photo by April Lidinsky, 2023

 Before heading off on winter break, I read an inspiring post by writer Rebecca Solnit in which she rhapsodized about a Portland hotel that, years ago, held a monthly silent reading hour to encourage the habit of reading for pleasure. She recalled the delight of passing handwritten drink orders to a server so that the only sound in the plush lobby was the turning of pages. I shared the idea on my own social media page, and a tsunami of introverted bookworms responded that this would be a dream come true. What could be better than enjoying community without the pressure of talking, all while nurturing a habit many of us have neglected — uninterrupted immersion in reading?

It took very little effort to organize monthly meet-ups that we’re calling “The Reading Hour - South Bend.” Other cities have organized Silent Book Clubs with the same concept, which was covered by NPR. Our first local gathering was last week in the soaring sky-lighted atrium of a hotel. Thirty readers showed up with books and Kindles, smiling and nodding at one another, and dropped into chairs for an hour of silent reading. I noticed that the positive modeling of other readers kept me from reaching for my phone, a habit I fight at home, even when I’m reading for pleasure. Bolstered by my peers, with only the whisper of turning pages around me, I let myself enter the flow of my book, and was astonished by how quickly the hour flashed by.

Why is this kind of focused engagement such a rare experience? And what can it tell us about our own students’ relationship to distracting devices when we are struggling to get them to focus in our physical or virtual classrooms?

My silent “Reading Hour” book was James M. Lang’s Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Lang quickly skewers any standard grumbling about students who “can’t stay off their phones in class” by offering us “A Brief History of Distraction,” shored up by neuroscience. Once we are reminded that humans have survived in part because of our ability to be distracted from hyper-attention to pay attention to predators (or, in today’s world, pings on our devices), it’s harder to be judgy towards our students.  And after you enjoy Lang’s galloping history of pedagogical distraction — from Aristotle noticing that flute playing in the distance distracts students from boring lessons, to no less than Augustine confessing that his mind wanders to fly-catching lizards when he’s supposed to be praying — we can appreciate that any fist-shaking about screens in the classroom is just part of the ongoing story of being distractedly human.

And yet Lang doesn’t urge us to give up. Instead, he suggests a perspective-shift by inviting us to consider what happens when any of us are immersed in a “flow.” I find this in pleasure-reading, or while intent on gardening, but for others, the flow might be found in hours of game-play, or a creative hobby. The key is that when flow happens, our attention is focused.

For instructors, Lang argues, we’d do well to stop complaining about what’s distracting our students, and start creating more learning situations that will hold our students’ attention. Here’s a question for all of us: When your students are really engaged and their attention is focused on a task, what exactly is going on? What dynamics, arrangements, or tasks have you set up so they are actively working through material, on their own or with one another? 

In our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, fifth edition, co-authored with Stuart Greene, every reading begins with a headnote that suggests close engagement strategies students could do on their own or in groups. For example, in the headnote for a timely essay by Robin DiAngelo on “The Perception of Race,” students are invited to mark and respond to redefinitions of terms such as “race,” “racism,” “prejudice” and “discrimination,” to launch their own reflections on these concepts and practices. 

After every reading, we also offer prompts for “Reading as a Writer: Analyzing Rhetorical Choices.” These activities guide students back into the texts for a variety of close engagement, from reverse-outlining to illuminate structural decisions, to marking examples or quotations in a reading to spark conversations about how and when skillful writers employ these techniques, to looking up more about concepts, terms, or authors. We find that when students are immersed in these methods of paying attention, especially in pairs or small groups, the hum in the classroom is of readers and writers in a communal flow, and rarely do we see the furtive use of phones, unless students are looking up a word, a fact, or a concept (as we all do many times a day).

Lang reminds us that the Latin roots of “dis-traction” mean to “drag something apart” (29).  What do you do — in your in-person or virtual classroom spaces — to hold your students together as a community of learners? What captures their attention, keeps them in the flow of scholarly activity, and how might we all do this more?

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About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.