[iDC] attention and the classroom

Eric Gordon eric_gordon at emerson.edu
Sun Jun 14 15:10:55 UTC 2009


Thanks for your comment.  My use of the term monolithic is in  
reference to normative assumptions about attention in the classroom.   
I'm referring to the ideal outward appearance of attentional  
discipline, which includes a forward-facing gaze, looking down only  
momentarily to take notes.  This particular outward appearance, or  
personal front as Goffman calls it, is a monolithic ideal, in the  
sense that the debates about short attention spans and distraction in  
the classroom is measured against it.  On one hand, there is this  
concept of the undivided attention of a group of people (with its  
recognizable front and assumptions about effectiveness), and on the  
other there is distraction (with its evolving front that includes  
heads down in laptops, glances to others in the "audience," such that  
what is taking place at the podium does not appear front and center).   
The latter is a challenge to what is the presumption of a monolithic  
attentional regime.  What I tried to communicate in my post (and what  
is communicated more clearly in the full article) is that this  
challenge can be a good thing.  The personal front of attentional  
discipline does not necessarily equal better learning or better  
experience.  And the "tools of distraction," such as Twitter, Google,  
etc. can in fact  enhance the learning experience, despite appearances  
that suggest the contrary.  This begs the question of labor, as I am  
proposing that some of the "work" of the lecture be distributed to the  
audience and that educators need to adapt to the subsequent outward  
appearance of this distribution.  Indeed, I am arguing that educators  
need to take part in designing for attention so that they might  
participate and take some control in this distribution.  In short,  
assumptions about the appearance of classroom attention is  
monolithic.  The redistribution of attention in the classroom  
challenges these assumptions and opens up the possibility for better  
learning environments.


On Jun 13, 2009, at 1:50 AM, Michael Bauwens wrote:

> Hi Eric,
> I wonder about your use of the concept of 'monolithic' and what it  
> exactly means
> if you'd say monopolistic it's easy to understand in terms of their  
> dominance
> but the information on them is very far from monolithic, as is their  
> usage in terms of attention diversity
> so I find your comparison with a lecture confusing, since the use of  
> these media, with multitasking, short attention spans and multi- 
> tasking is almost exactly the opposite ...
> thanks for explaining,
> Michel
> ----- Original Message ----
>> From: Eric Gordon <eric_gordon at emerson.edu>
>> To: idc at mailman.thing.net
>> Sent: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 10:46:03 PM
>> Subject: [iDC] attention and the classroom
>> I've been following the conversation about the Internet as playground
>> and factory with great interest and have been inspired to chime in.
>> Lately I've been thinking about that most mysterious currency of the
>> Internet: user attention.  Certainly, the economy of the Internet
>> trades in it.  As Frank pointed out awhile back: "We all “pay
>> attention” (literally and figuratively) at monolithic sites like
>> Google, Facebook, and eBay."  Their business model is premised on how
>> much we pay attention and how little we stray.  What's interesting to
>> me is how this model of monolithic attention gathering has
>> similarities to the models of attention we have established for the
>> classroom.  Students should pay total attention to the professor.
>> Distractions like open windows, buzzing from florescent light bulbs,
>> chatter in the hallway, or god forbid, laptops and cell phones,
>> threaten to chip away at the age old concept of undivided attention.
>> In fact, these distractions threaten to turn classroom attention into
>> an economy - where there is exchange and value for glances, foci, and
>> thoughts.  In the 1970s, Erving Goffman gave a lecture called "The
>> Lecture."  In it, he challenges the dominance of the subject of the
>> lecture and its corresponding forward facing gaze and suggests that,
>> in fact, students also pay attention to what he calls "the custard"  
>> of
>> the situation - that stuff, including the joke before the lecture
>> begins, the notes on the table, the noises in the room.  All of this
>> composes the situation and necessarily, the attention of students
>> flows in and out of the custard and subject at hand.
>> The Internet provides a new way into the context Goffman introduced
>> decades ago.  Open laptops with live twittering, web searching, SMS -
>> all of this is part of the custard of interaction and part of the
>> economy of attention that composes the situation of the classroom.
>> Instead of banning these technologies from the classroom, as many a
>> university is want to do, the answer is instead to harness them and  
>> to
>> actively participate in establishing the rules of the economy.  In an
>> article I recently completed with my colleague David Bogen, I refer  
>> to
>> this process as "designing choreographies of attention."  (The
>> complete article can be found here:
>> http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/2/000049.html)
>> .    We argue that educators should not fall back on monolithic  
>> models
>> of undivided attention, and instead engage in this kind of design,
>> which can transform the space of the classroom - complicating the
>> relationships between front and back, professor and student, and peer
>> to peer.  In this case, the particular and thoughtful appropriation  
>> of
>> Internet tools challenges the traditional economies of attention -
>> both those established by the professorate centuries ago as well as
>> those perpetuated by Google and its ilk.  Despite its dominant
>> business models, the Internet can help us rethink traditions; it can
>> help us break down barriers and transform spaces.  I'm interested in
>> seeing this happen in the classroom.  I'm interested in using these
>> tools to harness distraction as a means of producing more vibrant  
>> (and
>> dare I say focused) educational spaces.
>> I'm quite interested to know how others respond to this proposition
>> and specifically how it might feed into the larger discussion about
>> labor.  Indeed, students' attention is labor, whether it's undivided
>> or not.
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