Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time

Steven Volk, October 4, 2015

As instructors bring their classes to the glorious Allen Memorial Art Museum, they begin to consider the potential not just for teaching with art, but of teaching through art. Liliana Milkova, the academic curator at the museum, and I have written about the process (“transfer”) whereby the learning that occurs in one domain can be shifted to another. In extended interviews with Oberlin faculty who have brought their students to the museum, we have found that a number of specific skills foregrounded in visits to the Allen are transferring back into the classrooms in a variety of disciplines.

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson '33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

For example, faculty members have observed that the work their students do in the museum often helps them think about the link between evidence and argument in new ways. Some of these realizations originate from the curators’ use of VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) approaches in the museum. VTS fashions a viewer’s engagement with art through three basic prompts: (1) What is going on in this picture; (2) What do you see that makes you say that; and (3) What more can you say about the object? Having the “primary source” (the painting or sculpture) directly at hand strongly grounds the student’s ability to use evidence to support an interpretation: Where in the painting do you find evidence suggesting that the man is angry? Such lessons from the museum can transfer easily to classroom discussions and written work.

Close Readings

Of the many potential elements for transfer from museum to classroom, perhaps the most frequently reported by the faculty are the impact of close observation in the museum on close reading in the classroom. Both processes are supported by holding students figuratively or literally in front of the object (or text) they are studying, giving them the time they need to observe closely. By doing this, we are teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, in the words of Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts. In a widely circulated article on “The Power of Patience,” Roberts wrote, “in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.”

I thought of the importance of “slowing down” as I read Sherry Turkel’s commentary, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Review. (A shorter op-ed, “Stop Googling; Let’s Talk,” appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 26; her book on the topic, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is just out from Penguin.) In her Chronicle article, Turkel, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, recounted what happened in one of her recent seminars, one that was heavily dependent on personal narrative. Midway through the semester, she reported, some students came to talk to her.

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

“They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.”

Let me repeat that: For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. Turkel suggested they try a “device-free class,” and observed how the students seemed more “relaxed and cohesive” in those discussions, how they “finished their thoughts, unrushed” and seemed “more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation.” While I was pleasantly surprised that her students could move from a state of technological high anxiety to unpluged relaxation so quickly, I saw Turkel’s comments as coming from the same place as Robert’s. Indeed, if I was surprised, it was only because I don’t know many instructors who actually allow texting in class. From the comments I hear, it would seem that more and more of my colleagues are going further, either discouraging or prohibiting the use of laptops or other digital devices in class. Maybe that’s just me, or just here. One large survey found that 80% of college students admit to texting during class; 15% say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.”

There is substantial research, some of which has been reported here, recommending the benefits to learning and memory that come when students take notes by hand rather than on a laptop. Even more, as Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law observed, students who are in court-stenographer mode “sometimes seemed annoyed if you called on them because it broke up their transcriptions. If your notes are meant to capture the themes of the class, you remember your participation and you make it part of the story. If you are trying to write a transcript of class, class participation takes you away from your job.”

"The Phone People," Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

“The Phone People,” Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

Nor are devices a problem only in class. I am probably not alone in noticing that as soon as class ends, the phones emerge and large numbers of students are quickly absorbed in what seems to be a dangerous practice of texting-while-descending-the-stairs. Indeed, we seem caught between furiously peddling bicyclists and texting pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings as we tread our increasingly perilous path across campus.


The debate over the value (or dangers) of multi-tasking has gone on for some time. In a 2007 article, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” (Profession, 187–199), Katherine Hayles argued that we are at a moment of “generational divide” between an older cohort that equated learning with the “deep attention” characterized by long focus times and what I would call a “vertical” engagement with a topic, and a younger generation more prone to rapid switching among different tasks, shorter attention times, a low tolerance for “boredom” (i.e., unoccupied time) and a more “horizontal” mode of exploration characteristic of the digital hyperlinks. Hayles’ argument is that whether or not we (i.e., the “older” generation) want this, “The trend toward hyper attention will almost certainly accelerate.”

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention,” she writes, “educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students. At the extreme end of the spectrum represented by ADHD, it may be appropriate to change the young people, but surely the environment needs to change as well” (195).

Hayles defined hyper attention as the capacity to negotiate “rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention” (188). She contrasted this with “multitasking” which significant research has shown to place a substantial burden on learning. A study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, had students mark down once a minute what they were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, and surfing the Web. He noted that their “on-task” behavior began to decline at the two-minute mark. By the end of the 15-minute study, he found that they had spent only 65% of their time on task.

Indeed, evidence of the detrimental impact of multitasking continues to grow. To cite just one example, the majority of a cross-disciplinary survey of 774 students was shown to be engaging in classroom multitasking. Further, this was significantly related to lower GPA and to an increase in risk behaviors including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. As Maryellen Weimer suggested when pondering how to bring such behaviors under control, “I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn.”

A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Generation M : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” found that almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using other media. As Victoria Rideout, the lead author put it:

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside. I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

r8r, "Studying for Finals," Flickr CC

r8r, “Studying for Finals,” Flickr CC

Engaging Our Distracted Students: The Role of Conversation

So, to return to Turkel’s question: how do we teach in an age of (many) distractions? For many teaching in large universities with class sizes in the hundreds, one key was devising a way to return students to conversation, something which Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera (the provider of online courses or MOOCs) thought could be better done online than in class. (This has not necessarily proven to be the case.) But for those of us fortunate enough to teach in a school where 40-50 person classes are considered large, we know that “the most powerful learning takes place in [a context of] relationship,” at times between students and teachers, at times among peers. Turkel’s students tell her that “they want company. They are afraid that they already spend too much time alone and online.”

Turkel defends the lecture as the place where this “company” is to be found on college campuses. “For all its flaws,” she writes, “the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged.” But even as she praises the lecture – indeed, I am far more cautious of its pedagogical limitations – she, too, pivots to the importance of the conversations that can develop in a lecture, not the content that is delivered. She quotes Lee Edelman, a literary theorist at Tufts, who observed that his biggest challenge as a professor was “not teaching his students to think intelligently, but getting them to actually respond to each other thoughtfully in the classroom.” He found that his students were struggling with the give and take of face-to-face conversation.

*k59, "Conversación," Flickr CC

*k59, “Conversación,” Flickr CC

But how can conversations provide students with a steady focus and the ability to steer their way through multitasking temptations in an age of increasing distraction? Only, I would argue, to the extent that we actually think about how we “engineer,” as Roberts put it, “the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” Conversations must necessarily have “empty” spaces built into them, time for thinking before responding, time for boredom. And this is a generation that is boredom-adverse. “If boredom happens in a classroom,” Turkel writes, “rather than competing for student attention with ever-more extravagant technological fireworks, we should encourage students to stay with their moment of silence or distraction.” She cites a chemistry professor who said that he wants students in his class to daydream. “They can go back to the text if they missed a key fact. But if they went off in thought … they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them.” Boredom (in its creative sense), daydreaming (and not about lunch), doodling (while thinking) all require that we allow and encourage the space that is not completely filled; that we slow things down.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker, the writer, talked about how he would read aloud to slow himself down, because when he reads aloud to himself:

“it becomes the only thing there is. I think that a necessary precondition for the appreciation of art is the feeling that the thing that you’re looking at, or reading, or listening to, is all that there is for that moment, and you really have to give yourself to it. So, if you’re in a life where everything is sort of jumping for you and you’re only spending two minutes with anything, you’re not probably going to be able to take anything at the proper speed. So, I think reading things aloud to myself has helped me slow down. I guess, remember, remember the sound of words, the sequence of words…all I have to do, actually, is put on, say, a Debussy piece, or something, and it slows me down. I think that things that take time are useful; paragraphs take time, piano preludes take time.”

Conversations take time. If we are to help our students develop their capacities for deep engagement and build their capacity to cope with the increasing distractions of a hyper-connected environment, we have to consider the pace and tempo of learning as a subject we need to address regardless of our disciplines. It is its own discipline.

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