I was doing and thinking about a lot of other things while writing this post

There’s an interesting article in CHE right now, “Scholars Turn Their Attention to Attention,” about various research and perspectives on multitasking– or rather, the myth of multitasking.  There must be something in the air about multitasking and the bane of every non-multitasker’s existence, talking on the phone while driving.  Just yesterday, I was listening to NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” to US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sounding a little like a crazy old man about the need to keep both hands on the wheel at all times.  I do not understand how someone can text and drive at the same time, I don’t think bus drivers or truckers ought to be talking on their cell phones (unless they have something like a head set), and I try to use my headphones when I’m driving and talking on the phone.  But doing anything while driving is pontentially dangerous, including perfectly legal (and even encouraged!) things like eating, drinking (I’ll bet spilled coffee in the lap is responsible for many more auto accidents than cell phone class), talking to others, listening to super-duper loud music, etc.

Wait, I got distracted.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, multitasking….

The CHE article is good and probably worth teaching because it covers the issue from a variety of different angles– certainly not just from the “multitasking is bad” one.  There’s some kind of information here about the “history” of research on multitasking and various experiments, but I have to say (as someone who doesn’t do this kind of research) that a lot of this seems kind of like parlor games to me.  For example:

As far back as the 1890s, experimental psychologists were testing people’s ability to direct their attention to multiple tasks. One early researcher asked her subjects to read aloud from a novel while simultaneously writing the letter A as many times as possible. Another had people sort cards of various shapes while counting aloud by threes.

Well, duh, but isn’t that more like making someone say the alphabet backwards during a sobriety test or something?  I don’t know if that necessarily tests a person’s ability to do more than one thing at once though giving most attention to a single task.  For example, as I am writing this post, I am listening to my iPhone (REM right now) and I was just interrupted to take a phone call from my wife.  That’s multitasking, but it’s not like what these people seem to mean by multitasking.

Or I guess that’s the problem here– I’m not sure there’s a very clear definition of what multitasking is.  For example, part of the argument that comes up against multitasking is that increasingly old school argument about no laptops in the classroom.  Here’s an extreme example of that:

“I’m teaching a class of first-year students,” says David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “This might well have been the very first class they walked into in their college careers. I handed out a sheet that said, ‘Thou shalt have no electronic devices in the classroom.’ … I don’t want to see students with their computers out, because you know they’re surfing the Web. I don’t want to see them taking notes. I want to see them paying attention to me.”

I don’t know who Meyers is or what his scholarship says, but that last line– I want them paying attention to me– seems pretty telling and egocentric.  And  it’s this potential lack of paying attention to me, the professor/teacher/sage on the stage/keeper o’ wisdom that has got most people like Meyers thinking like this.  Don’t get me wrong; I will sometimes ask students to close up their laptops to pay attention to something, especially if it is one of those times I have to go into a five minute lecture “about important stuff for the class” mode.  But generally, I don’t want to be the center of the class, and if my students find it easy to be distracted by Facebook (or whatever), then it’s probably a combination of me being boring or them not wanting to be in class.

One more thing:  I don’t think multitasking is even remotely a phenomenon that has come abut only with the age of the Internet.  I grew up in a multitasking household.  The television was ALWAYS on when I was a kid, and now when I am home visiting my parents, three sisters, and all the kids and in-laws (I think it’s 17 0r 18 people total), it is not at all uncommon for their to be three different televisions in different rooms but still within sight, all tuned to different channels.  My parents always read the newspaper or magazine while watching TV (or with the TV on– I’m not sure the difference was ever very clear when I was a kid), and layered over that would always be some kind of conversation.  When I go back home now, all of my adult siblings and their spouses will sit around watching TV, playing some kind of game, checking laptops or cell phones, watching children, eating snacks, and planning the next meal, all at the same time.

I mean, really:  in “real life,” who just “pays attention?”

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2 Responses to I was doing and thinking about a lot of other things while writing this post

  1. Alan Benson says:

    I think “I mean, really: in ‘real life,’ who just ‘pays attention?'” will be my new email signature.

    I felt much the same way when reading this piece. The term “multitasking” is very slippery, since it seems to cover texting-while-driving (as in “The Autumn of the Multitaskers” and this study) as well as having the radio on while you read or staying logged in to your IM as you write. I talked to some people at DMAC this summer about this, but I could never quite get to the point I wanted to make. The first “multitasking” seems to just be “being distracted.” The second seems like “selective focus.” The first is problematic, but the second is necessary (and obviously quite old–you know some monk was having to tune out another monk’s chatter in the scriptorium).

    I’m loathe to call for more terminology (because more jargon is always a good thing to have), but it seems like a smarter definition of multitasking (accompanied by more nuanced research methodology) would help move out of this impasse.

  2. Christopher Weuve says:

    The “no computers” out thing really shocked me, because I hadn’t thought of it. When I was a student I had one of the very first laptops [here’s a pic: http://oldcomputers.net/pics/nec8201a.jpg%5D, and it was such a step forward for lecture-type classes. (The number one comment I got was “that’s cool, but I can’t type fast enough to use it in class.)

    Of course, the prof didn’t have to worry about me surfin’ the web, because it wouldn’t be invented for another 10 years…

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