Attention Span

It’s been said that we teach what we most need to learn. Many of my classes involve critical thinking and information literacy skills. While I’m still teaching, I want to pay attention to the lessons I learn from my work.

Back in November, I asked my first year seminar students to write down topics they felt were important and challenging to discuss. We then used the randomly drawn slips of paper like the talking stick in a talking circle. The person holding it got to say whatever he or she needed to say while others listened, and then that person handed the paper along. Anyone could pass who was not ready to talk. We got through three topics that day and I saved the rest for when we had time to do this again. Two weeks later, the first topic someone drew from the heap was “Politics.” Most of the students said they had cared about it before the election and right after, but now they didn’t pay much attention to it. One young woman said the election had been so unpleasant that she changed her major from political science. It drove a thoughtful, moderate Republican who understands that conservative includes conserve out of wanting to engage in politics. That’s a loss to her community. Every time a young person with a good mind gets disillusioned, we lose their years of future leadership. I hope she’ll get involved again in the future. Her burnout is deep, though.

Her classmates’ loss of interest in something they felt passionate about two weeks before is alarming. As a culture, we may be getting trained to the media’s attention span and the media’s focal point, forgetting that our personal lives’ deep needs interact with issues that take prolonged, thoughtful, patient engagement, regardless of the headlines.

The lack of information they had was also troubling. Not because they’re not smart—they are, but the only student who knew recent world history well was from Palestine. He was the only one able to knowledgeably talk about the Cuban revolution and who Fidel Castro really was and why people felt so strongly about his death. And of course, he was well-informed on the complexities of the Middle East, and the pros and cons and unintended consequences of American presence there, something his classmates barely understood. I was relieved that the majority do understand climate change and that only one person in two classes of nineteen didn’t. Even the most politically conservative of them comprehended the reality of climate science. They don’t see it as a political issue so much as a scientific one with an impact they’ll have to live with.

Today in my January term health class, students shared and discussed articles on their chosen research topic for this half of the week, public health issues and the environment. This discussion was encouraging. I think the young adult attention span is only short for things they don’t fully understand, which for some includes politics, but it’s steady for the concepts they grasp. I hope this understanding ultimately translates into engagement. The earth needs them.

Writing about this motivates me to stay engaged as well, and to pay attention to issues in depth after the headlines fade.

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5 thoughts on “Attention Span

  1. This is very thought-provoking and evocative. Because our lives run a parallel path, I will add my own thoughts; it’s good you are ‘motivated to stay engaged…”I taught at a university for 26 years in English and Writing Arts; I finally settled into teaching ‘Argument and Research’ for a long time, and it was my job to stay abreast and open-minded and to teach the same to my students; for many years, it worked well, but of course, there were certain issues that deserved evasive behavior due to fear of being divisive or creating animosity. My classes were comprised of the United Nations, and I was always very careful; I will admit certain topics were personally avoided due to my own belief systems as well. I noticed in more recent years the evil of social media and the necessity to watch all news media with healthy skepticism. Sadly, the news casters are not thorough in some cases, and in others they are disingenuous, and it was my obligation to impress students to watch, read and listen to all and then make valid, educated decisions of their own. It worked well for years until a certain, rather recent incident which led to more happenstances, and students suddenly became divided and I just had to accept that for now, I only have control of own thoughts and actions. It has been a troubling year, and much of it has to do with media coverage on over kill and people having the need to take sides. I only hope and pray we will become a more united country in the very near future.
    I retired from teaching because it was my time to retire, but I have to admit I was thrilled to be able to do so at a time most troubling.

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  2. I’ve been fortunate that the divided groups in my classes can still talk to each other and respect each other. One of the goals of the first year seminar is to teach active listening and civil discourse as well as critical reading and thinking.

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    • Amber, I know you are a very careful reader, choosing to ‘chew’ upon the words in a book; some writers you might find wonderful for your courses: Susan Jacoby, Susan Brownmiller, Charles R. Lawrence III, Derek Bok, Stanley Fish* ( one of my favorites), Ronald Takaki, Carl Rogers, Lesley Timmerman, Edward J. Koch, Ronald M. Green, Richard Hayes, David Cole, Lauren Tarshis, Steven Levy, John Tierney, Josh Rose, and James Q. Wilson ( just a few; holler if you need more).

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