internet brains

Cathy Davidson has a recent piece in the Chronicle on "Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age," where she argues for 

a different way of seeing, one that's based on multitasking our attention—not by seeing it all alone but by distributing various parts of the task among others dedicated to the same end. For most of us, this is a new pattern of attention. Multitasking is the ideal mode of the 21st century, not just because of information overload but also because our digital age was structured without anything like a central node broadcasting one stream of information that we pay attention to at a given moment. On the Internet, everything links to everything, and all of it is available all the time.

Unfortunately, current practices of our educational institutions—and workplaces—are a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built over the last 100-plus years. The 20th century taught us that completing one task before starting another one was the route to success. Everything about 20th-century education, like the 20th-century workplace, has been designed to reinforce our attention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial labor management, from the assembly line to the modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduate school.

So this is a familiar argument, if you follow Davidson's work or blog. It also echoes the observations I made in the last post here regarding classroom laptop policies. The comment thread on the post is also relevant as it reflects the significant divide in academia on this issue. Certainly there are some who are excited to embrace this new world and share in this vision of it. Many more, however, are skeptical or simply resistant to the whole idea.

It's a problem that students in our composition program are discussing right now (at least the ones who are in class with our first-year TAs who are teaching a common syllabus). They're watching Ken Robinson's well known Ted Talk on schools and creativity. Robinson observes that as one progresses through school that the curriculum increasingly ignores the body, focuses on mental operations, and specifically on left-brained thinking. As Davidson notes, it's the kind of thinking that was appropriate (or at least deemed appropriate) for the 20th-century workplace.

Actually I think it goes deeper than that, as deep as print culture, perhaps as deep as civilization itself (i.e. as deep as the history of writing technologies). Across perhaps all of that time, learning has required the single-point attention necessary for reading. One demonstrated one's education by performing tasks made possible by this kind of reading. And educated people entered professions that called them to continue performing tasks of single-point attention. This is certainly the case in English where close reading is the central scholarly activity, regardless of critical method. Essay assginments, final exams, doctoral exams, and dissertations ask students to perform tasks hinged upon close reading. And professors generally go on to teach and research with close reading as a primary activity. This is largely true whether one is in literary studies, rhetoric, creative writing, etc.

As I see it, the point of Davidson's argument is not to suggest that the collaborative pedagogy she describes is a better way to reach the traditional objectives of higher education. Nor is it to suggest that this is the way to reach "kids today" (though that might also be true on some level). Instead, the point is to suggest different objectives. For example, when I was an undergrad, I took two Shakespeare lecture courses. Each had over 200 students. We read plays, attended two lectures a week, and took a mid-term and a final. In those exams, we would be given part of a speech from one of the plays we had read. We had to identify the speech and then over some reading of it. Today, the ability to memorize lines from Shakespeare seems about as useful as the ability to estimate the time by looking at the position of the sun: not totally without value, but not something I'd make the central objective of my curriculum. And this isn't about Shakespeare, mind you: it's about the larger value placed on a particular kind of cognitive task. So if we were going to imagine a different cognitive task, what would it be?

Personally, as a writer, I've never thought the task was about single-point attention, about the close reading of the text in front of me. Instead it's always been about the harmonic intersection of multiple texts, concepts, audiences, arguments, etc. In that Deleuzian sense, composition for me has always been about intensification: layering, linking, folding, until something happens. If anything, a single-pointed approach leads to rather dull prose: one note. I would find it difficult to write that way, or read that way. It would be dull for sure. One of my grad professors, Don Byrd, once refered to reading as a sensory deprivation experiment. And I think it could be, but it really isn't because affectivity just bleeds out all over the place: foot-tapping, chin-stroking, eyebrow-raising, etc.

So the first thing one must recognize is that attention never was single-point. We created extenisve institutional mechanisms and technologies to harness attention all through the 20th century, but I wonder how well they ever worked. Today, the number of Americans with graduate degrees is about the same as the number of Americans with high school diplomas a century ago (less than 10%), so obviously we've built a huge system and put many people through it. Clearly the people who are successful in the system do well on the tests that supposed rely upon attention, but I am not sure that's really the ability that's most important, even within the system that believed it relied upon single-point attention. The thing about single-point attention is that it is slow and laborious; it can only work in an environment of relative information scarcity. I would argue that success in the system has always relied upon risk-taking, intuitive leaps, creativity, and so on: pattern recognition, one might say, or maybe pattern composition. 

And what does pattern recognizing or composing require? Multi-point attention, of course. Now, most people will tell you that the brain is only able to pay attention to one thing at a time. Fair enough. So perhaps what I'm trying to grasp here is switching frames a reference, moving from one tree to another tree and then to the forest as it were. I'm not arguing that it is useful or even acceptable for students to be on Facebook in my class or that distraction is not a potential problem, especially for less mature students. As I often argue here, we need to develop a new ethos, a new sense of community and behavior, for the networked age. We clearly do not have one.

As we do this, I believe we need to start by recognizing that the legacy model of knowing we bring with us is just that, a model. If we can start to investigate what it means to learn and to know then we can start to reconsider how to teach. But if we remain locked in a 20th century model of what knowledge is, then reforming teaching will never work.