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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