Your attention please!

As part of the department’s ongoing self-assessments, my friend and colleague Rebecca sat in on one of my World History sections yesterday. It was a good experience, and I learned something I might never have noticed about my own teaching otherwise.

We were doing peer review and workshopping of drafts for the second paper. I’ve been working with a rubric of the research and writing process that starts with a topic that is “freaking interesting,” leading to curiosity, leading to questions, leading to research, leading to answers, leading to new questions, leading to evolution of the topic … and so on until it’s time to report something out. So then the paper rubric is TOPIC, QUESTION, RESEARCH, FINDINGS.

Across all my classes this semester, this seems to be doing a particularly good job of lighting the light bulb that these papers are works of curiosity and discovery, not dull exercises mandated by an arbitrary authority. We had some of that in this class too. One of the students reluctantly volunteered its draft, afraid as usual to lose face. We looked it over together; it was a decent data dump (which for this student was a significant improvement). So I started asking questions. What’s your topic? What do you find interesting about it? The student started to explain difficulties it had had in finding direct reference to its area of concern in 1515. It turns out, that’s because it wasn’t something they were concerned about then in the same way we are now. They handled it this other way instead. I said, that’s freaking interesting! You figured something out – maybe that’s the paper! Then Rebecca said, sometimes it’s the holes in the evidence that are interesting – how can we figure out what was in there? Light bulbs all over.

A few other students started to join in the questioning. I made space in the draft document (I was projecting it up front from Dropbox) and wrote three sentences summarizing the topic and question as it had emerged from the discussion. I said, how’s this look? Game changer. I said, isn’t this just what you said? Yep. So I asked the rest of the class, what’s there to learn from this for the rest of your drafts? Get clear on what your topic is. Figure out what you’re curious about. Decide what your research shows you about that. What do you know, and how do you know it. Say those things!

We talked about the linear style of supporting a point with evidence, and the more elliptical style of walking around a topic looking at it from various perspectives, gaining understanding without necessarily bringing it to a particular point. This student’s project seemed to fit the latter style better. Again, light bulbs. Rebecca then picked up a cue the student had dropped in passing that opened up one of those strolls, a dimension of the topic the student had seen and noted without really thinking through. Light bulbs.

Throughout this, several other students were joining in with questions and observations. In a couple of cases I mentioned their topics and asked them what they were getting from the discussion that could help them with their work. We did several mini-versions of the topic / question / research / findings q and a. At the end I said, you can do this, right? And everyone gave a confident nod.

A good day at the office. OK, so what about attention? Well afterwards, Rebecca remarked that sitting in the back of the classroom had allowed her to observe how the students directed their attention, especially what they were doing on their laptops or other devices. She said the class started with only a few of the students apparently paying attention. As it went along, some of those dropped out and others dropped in. All of the class was tuned in at one time or another, but not all at the same time. And she said, I realized Carl doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t need them to pay attention the whole time. He just wants them to pay attention some of the time.

I cracked up, because she’s absolutely right, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually thought that through as an intentional practice. I’ve evolved that from seeing how classrooms work from both the student and teacher perspectives. Rebecca and I talked about the research showing that most people can’t sustain focused attention for more than 10-15 minutes. We can wish otherwise, but it’s never seemed like a hill worth dying on to me. So for important instruction like yesterday’s, I loop back through the same lesson again and again, reframing and retargeting it, calling in attention every once in awhile to bring the key points into focus. As long as the students tune in every so often, they’re going to get at least a corner of the lesson. And as Confucius said, if students can’t find the other three corners for themselves, the lesson isn’t worth teaching.


  1. The dog that didn’t bark in the night:
    The student that couldn’t find what it was looking for because the people who it was studying didn’t think of things that way found one of the black holes. Black holes are (duh) invisible, but everything gravitates around them.
    One time I was on a dissertation committee for a student in communications. The dissertation topic was a no brainer: the hypothesis that X was at least partially causal for Y; and she did a content analysis of network news. She found, through grueling statistical analysis, that there was no correlation between X and Y in the network news. The dissertation oral was a circus. Everybody in the room, including the candidate, knew that X was an important cause of Y; but the statistics converged relentlessly to the null hypothesis. [Communications, along with most of the non-academic PhD grantors are determinedly positivist. That’s the touchstone of legitimacy.] So the oral went smoothly and vacuously. The procedure was flawless, but the patient died. I went last, and asked her if she’d formed any hypotheses about why an obvious truthhood found no support in the media. That changed the game, and the tenor of the oral. It became obvious that the research question, along with the assumptions and methodology for dealing with it was seriously flawed. So we started having some fun after all.
    She’d found a black hole, and, despite herself, solid evidence for its existence: a media tabu showing itself by the failure of the dog to bark. The hardest part about any research is that you have to know so much before you can get started productively. Carl’s circling strategy not only accommodates to students’ attention spans, but also contributes to shoveling in what you need to know in order to be ready to start — especially when you’re dealing with a black hole.

  2. Exactly. That’s a great story. I think there’s a lot to be said from an efficiency and inclusion standpoint for a more formulaic kind of training where you load the students up with an algorithm and set them to churning out product. Lots of dim bulbs and marginal types get in the game that way. I was especially struck by this a few years ago when I was on a couple of Sociology search committees. So many of the candidates had been taught a stats pack and shown to one of the big databases to crunch numbers. And that was it, that was what they knew. Some very short conversations. You can get the same thing in the humanities out of any of the critical theory franchises.

    But if you want people to actually be able to puzzle stuff out for themselves, including seeing the black holes as interesting challenges rather than null zones to ignore, as far as I can tell there has to be lots of the kind of heuristic loopiness we’re talking about.

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