[iDC] attention and the classroom

Michael H Goldhaber michael at goldhaber.org
Tue Jun 16 05:13:05 UTC 2009

I would like to comment on Eric Gordon and David Bogen's thought- 
provoking article on Designing Choreographies for the "New Economy of  

1) As Lanham and others ignore or refuse to say, the economics of  
attention is not only about the scarcity  of it, but it's intense  
desirability (at least for some) which leads to a growing competition  
for it, as I have often argued. (My somewhat biased review of Lanham's  
book is  in First Monday http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1416/1334 
  ). A significant number of people who define themselves as educators  
or lecturers  are among those who seek attention (and some are very  
good at getting it). Thus even those of us  try to be educators must  
view even our own roles with a certain suspicion. How do we decide  
educational goals and to what extent do these goals reflect a desire  
to have others see the world through our eyes, and what does that  
entail? Do we hope for some degree of stardom or at least admiration  
for ourselves, and if so, do we then couch that in an objective  
sounding framework of what must be taught?

2) Gordon and Bogen's  article focuses on modifications of the  
traditional lecture caused by new technology. I think the treatment  
somewhat downplays both the long history and the contested terrain of  
the classroom even in advance of the Internet and similar  
technologies. For one thing, as the etymology of the word "lecture"  
makes clear it began as a reading of text (at first not by the  
lecturer at all, but rather a received text). In early universities,  
predating printing, the purpose was to pass on these texts to the  
students' own notebooks. But even before that,  the discipline of a  
silent audience was enforced by awe, possible punishment and possibly  
seduction. The earliest  lecturers were likely priests reading holy  
texts , and too much indiscipline in listening could lead to death. In  
medieval Catholic Europe, for instance, discussion of these texts by  
the laity was not allowed (See, e.g., the actions of the Holy  
Inquisition against the Cathars decribed in LeRoy Ladurie's  
"Montaillou." )

Given that many lectures are read from texts, albeit usually these  
days texts original with the lecturers, it has long been questioned  
why the lecture system survives.

3) Certainly sitting still to listen to a teacher or lecturer or even  
a pater familias at the dinner table does not come naturally. It is  
enforced, seduced or otherwise won only with considerable effort,  
something most children do learn in pre-school or kindergarten or  
early elementary school, but not all do. It used to be (and in places  
still is) enforced in schools with the birch rod and by similar means.  
A Ritalin Rx may be the new form of corporal punishment.

4) So the likely desire on the part of the lecturer to get attention  
( a desire I must admit I share) along withe vast anachronism of the  
lecture form and the need for prior discipline of some kind to enforce  
if not attention at least silence are all preconditions for the  
situation Gordon and Bogen wish to address.
Day dreaming, doodling, tossing notes across the room when the teacher  
was not looking, whispering covertly, secretly reading something that  
has nothing to do with the lecture may now have been replaced with the  
less easily spotted  techniques associated with having laptops, smart  
phones or just plain cell phones to play with, but how much is truly  
different, except that actually paying attention is even less required  
today, since the lecture may be well be available on website (even a  
video) whenever the attendee chooses pay attention , if ever. The old  
classroom already had the venerable tradition of class clown as well  
as teacher's pet, each vying for attention; the new media allow more  
surreptitiously to seek such roles.

5) In addition, today, with the wealth of demands on attention, some  
of which required great creativity, skill and much labor to  put  
together (movies , TV shows, music, etc. ) the average educator's  
challenge in seducing actual attention has become very great. This  
brings me to the metaphor of choreography . Actual choreography is of  
course amazingly difficult, time consuming, and requires just the  
right highly trained performers to be put into effect. It appears to  
me that Gordon and Bogen's experiment amounted to  attempting  
something  as improbable as choreographing a set of more or less  
randomly chosen amateurs in partly preset, partly improvised dance  
that still would be as satisfying as one by a really good dance  
troupe. That is a very tall order. The fact that the result, on my  
reading, seemed more like the mad-hatter's tea party was only to be  

6) It is certainly the case that quite satisfying and valuable modes  
of use of social media, etc. are evolving and will continue to do so,  
and that the participants can learn much through their use. But I  
think that just as they seem to be displacing the book, the CD, the  
daily newspaper they are in the process of displacing much   
traditional in academia. While we well can mourn the good part of what  
is thereby lost, I very much doubt that the sort of experiment  
described is more than a stab in the dark in the discovery of what  
will work. Rather than a few carefully planned experiments, millions  
and millions of unplanned ones are under way and will eventually lead  
to new and hopefully worthwhile modes of learning.


Michael H. Goldhaber

michael at goldhaber.org
mgoldh at well.com
blog www.goldhaber.org
older site, www.well.com/user/mgoldh

On Jun 12, 2009, at 10:50 PM, 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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