Apr 6, 2012

Attention Literacy for Today's Students?

A serious suggestion floated last month near to the end of a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, Class Resentment -- managing to mix together both senses of that qualifier, the actual classroom and its dynamics, and the economic stratification -- shocked me at first, then got me to thinking.  To the indeed-needed cultural literacy, religious literacy, and information literacy (all of which I'm strongly for), it's being proposed that what our college and university students now need us educators to start inculcating "attention literacy."

The author, Laurie Essig, recounts her experience and reasons for ire arising during an incident in a colleague's class:
I was struck by three things. One, he was giving a brilliant lecture. Really beautifully prepared, interesting stories, using images, props, writing on the board, and inviting student participation. Two, about one-third of his students couldn’t be bothered to notice.  And three, it makes me really, really angry to see a talented teacher treated like background noise. 

 "Those Kids These Days"

An unfortunate, and all too common occurrence in today's classrooms, though not a completely novel one by any means or measure -- I remember routinely making some of the same observations myself as an undergraduate student twenty years ago.  I'll skip Essig's depiction of the train of thought embodying her anger, as well as the Facebooking question-posing experiment she herself then engaged in, except to mention one result she compiled from it:
. . .  a large number of students felt as I did in that class: distracted and frustrated. No matter how much I was trying to pay attention,  it was nearly impossible not to notice the FB photos up on the computer next to me, to not hear the clickety click of someone frantically typing an email across the aisle, or to take a closer look at that really cute dress at J.Crew.
The lesson she derives from this is one already worked out in greater depth by Howard Rheingold, an advocate of 21st century "literacies".  Essig draws some conclusions:
[W]e cannot expect our students to have the skills necessary to pay attention, but rather we must teach them “attention literacy.”
It is our job to create classroom environments where attention is practiced and learned as much as analytical thinking.
That's a rather big claim, one must admit -- but admittedly a plausible one, at first blush. In his own post, Rheingold writes:
I want my students to learn that attention is a skill that must be learned, shaped, practiced; this skill must evolve if we are to evolve. The technological extension of our minds and brains by chips and nets has granted great power to billions of people, but even in the early years of always-on, it is clear to even technology enthusiasts like me that this power will certainly mislead, mesmerize and distract those who haven’t learned – were never taught – how to exert some degree of mental control over our use of laptop, handheld, earbudded media.
These are interesting claims about the present situation in which we find ourselves, in which perhaps, possibly, our students actually lose themselves -- well . . .  some of our students, as we'll see in a moment.

Placing Attention in an Aristotelian Setting

Rheingold's reflections on attention, contemporary education, the present batch of students, and technology are interesting, even insightful -- he carries out learning activities deliberately structured so as to shock students out of their easy grooves so that they can thing, at least momentarily about their own processes and practices of attention.  He uses a term which at least suggests a realization of continuity to the past, to traditions of mental cultivation, to directed forms of moral education, which I see lacking in Essig's short piece: mindfulness.  Of course, since popularized summaries and rituals from eastern religious traditions made their ways into American culture, the mere mention of a word associated with -- indeed the goal and product of  -- rigorous disciplines, one can't be sure of giving it all that weight when invoked in essays about education.

But, let's say something like the fuller, tradition-imbued sense of the term is meant here, that it is being advocated that students be introduced to some substantive notion of what good mental functioning, even flourishing looks like, hopefully embodied by their instructor.  Perhaps, something not necessarily like Buddhist mindfulness, but, oh. . .  say . . . Aristotelian excellences of mind, what used to be called the intellectual virtues.  Even some of the moral virtues, or other morally relevant states are arguably relevant.

It's very interesting to see just how helpless and hapless certain students appear when faced with attention-sucking artifacts.  There's a fundamental note of passivity in these reports -- both on the part of the students and on the part of the instructors, the observers, the theorizers, even seeping into Rheingold's justification of his own attention-directing practices:
I wasn’t trying to control them [the students]. I was trying to draw their attention to how little control any of us seem to have over where we let the screens on our laps and in our pockets lead our thoughts.
Any of us?  Are we all so done in by the available technology? Have things been so drastically changed by our image and data-rich environment?  Or perhaps, are there less well-discussed, longer-developed deficits in our cultural environment (really in our moral, but the fact that this word would seem out of place to so many is a sign of the very problem) which render many -- not only students, but also clearly instructors, and likely many non-academics as well -- vulnerable to this strange weakness, susceptibility, lure . . . whatever you'd like to call it?

Attention is More Than A Skill.

I suspect myself that this is indeed the case, and that the call for "attention literacy," proposed as a solution to this problem, is a step towards resolving it but also a sign of a certain superficiality towards it as well.  To even speak of attention, in a pedagogical context, as consisting primarily in a "skill" or "skills" -- "the skills necessary to pay attention" --  strikes me as reflective of some degree of misunderstanding.  There certainly are available practices, learning about which, doing of which a more attentive person can often be developed from a less attentive one, and one might think about those in terms of being taught, acquiring and applying, skills -- at least to some extent.

But, doesn't what we're looking for, hoping for, deploring the absence of, seem more like a "disposition?"  Something deeper, pervading more globally into the structure of the student's personality, irreducible to simply skills? This, I think is one weakness involved in how many (though not all) of the "literacies" get conceived of and practically implemented -- a failure to attend sufficiently to the role of dispositions, as well as what goes into developing, ongoingly defining, augmenting and improving dispositions.

A prime example of this would be the concept and corresponding reality of what in Aristotle's works is called prohairesis, and which we translate as "choice" or more specifically "deliberative choice" or "moral choice," but which I'd propose rendering by "character-determinative choice."  The sorts of dispositions to (and for) which we assign praise or criticism necessarily involve such choice, and on multiple levels -- they're not just habits, but rather habitual dispositions produced by and reflective of choices, conscious, deliberate choices on the part of the one developing and strengthening, or weakening and diminishing the disposition. 

Dispositions involve what nowadays pedagogical theorists like to talk about as "cognitive" and "affective" as well as habitual and practical or action-oreinted dimensions -- meaning by these two terms that bound up in the complex interconnected skein that a disposition reveals itself to be are structured and oriented desires, emotional states, moods, attitudes, memories, and ideas, opinions, or judgements.  But, when it comes to moral dispositions, the key to them still does lie in the choices one makes.

In order to inculcate what the proposed '"attention literacy" programatic focus promises, it seems to me that three things are particularly key to bring to light -- first for those of us who want to bat ideas about, then for instructors, and then -- where we at last hit "ground level"-- for our students.

Three Key Overlooked Issues

First among these would be growing awareness about our own condition as far as attention, purposive activities (like going to class), and technological temptations goes -- where we ourselves are and where others are.  I think the attention-literacy-attracted probably do a decent job of this, perhaps just as good a job as more traditional pedagogical, moral, and mindfulness approaches have done.  You might think of this as attentiveness to attention itself -- and that actually introduces one aspect of the problem I've often run into and upon which my own efforts with students have run aground.  A certain modicum of attentiveness turns out to be needed in order for a person to grasp that their own capacities for paying attention are deficient, let alone to make progress towards developing a more attentive self-orientation.

This leads to the second needful thing, which is that the matter must really be framed in moral dimensions -- not just in terms of prudential considerations about entering the job market, not merely in pragmatic terms of better equipping students for further academic achievement -- but in terms of right and wrong, good or bad, in terms of a responsibility one bears towards oneself and towards others, perhaps even in terms of accountability, of consequences for not paying attention, aimed at highlighting the fact that, whatever environment one may have emerged from, however poorly armed a student's panoply of expectations, experiences, dispositions, skills and knowledge inherited from their K-12 education might be, they have a measure of choice to exercise, to seize, to make use of -- moral choice, choice that locates their positions and vectors via constellations and lodestars that surpass -- and frankly all too often scare too many of today's teachers, even though they find themselves forced to surreptitiously smuggle robustly moral stances and notions back in -- the demoralized horizons comprising the comfort zones for educators and the educational establishment.

Essig and the students in the class who were not ensorcelled by their laptops and other devices were actually right to get frustrated, even angry, with the students who were failing in their very function as students.  In fact, if they wanted to frame the issue in terms of fairness, even justice, Aristotle would be right there to give some shape and substance to their otherwise all too inchoate sensibility.  Justice is, as he notes, in a certain way all of the virtues, and each of the vices has the potential to embody injustice -- for justice and injustice are pros allon, "towards" or "in relation to the other person." 

If I don't have my act together, disposition-wise, and it's affecting others, I'm wronging them, doing injustice, in a sense taking more than my fair share, polluting the environment.  What's really needed is unashamedly, unapologetically calling a failure, let alone an inability, to pay attention something bad -- not just pragmatically bad but blameworthy, wrong, a stain though not an indelible one upon one's character.  Even better would be if we could use the language, the concepts, direct attention to the actuality of virtues and vices.

In the course of his discussion of the extents of the voluntary and moral choice, Aristotle makes an interesting, one might even say pregnant, set of remarks:
. . . .and so too in the case of anything else that they are thought to be ignorant of through carelessness; we assume that it is in their power not to be ignorant, since they have the power of taking care. But perhaps a man is the kind of man not to take care. Still they are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind, and men make themselves responsible  . . . . for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character. This is plain from the case of people training for any contest or action; they practise the activity the whole time. Now not to know that it is from the exercise of activities on particular objects that states of character are produced is the mark of a thoroughly senseless person.
Instead of unpacking other implications of this rich passage, which I'll leave to my readers, I'll just pass on a third component -- something needed to undergird any real effort, any genuine change, anything like what education in a full sense promises, in terms of this matter of attention, awareness, application.  One important dimension of choice is that the kinds of choices that matter most are not the abstract, context-unformed examples of philosophical thought experiments, but the ones that bleed into, impinge upon, enfold and encompass, enable or rule out, continue or revise each other, as choices in fact do in our real lives. 

One does not become attentive overnight, or simply by following instructions to perform exercises in class periods, but by applying oneself, through persistence and perseverance -- and what that really means is sticking to a line of choice by remaking one's good choices, ratifying those choices, reduplicating those choices -- thereby gradually untangling threads anchoring a current bad disposition, a vice, continuing ones trajectory of improvement through temptations of akrasia, weakness of will, eventually consolidating one's perhaps unsuspected capacities for actually paying attention when that's what's required.


  1. Reading this essay was in itself an exercise in forcing me to pay attention, for I am a man who is easily distracted.
    If I understand you, your point, in part, is that this ability (to pay attention) is a large part of what virtue is, and that it is a mistake to view this as being a disposition which cannot be improved upon. I particularly enjoyed the quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in part because I have a copy of that work which I intend to read after I finish his Art of Rhetoric. Aristotle’s admonition:

    “… not to know that it is from the exercise of activities on particular objects that states of character are produced is the mark of a thoroughly senseless person.”

    Is a call to re-examine one’s own behavior with an eye toward improving it.

    Having said this I do wish that you could include more breaks in your text. On a computer screen providing visual breaks in a text would allow your reader the same ease in reading that a printed text offers where one can literally put ones finger on what one is reading. In so far as it is inconvenient and impolite to do so with a public computer, visual subdivisions provide a similar aid to the reader.

    Though this may fall under the category of personal preference, I do wish that you were more concise, though given the choice I would rather be able to read an essay which is verbose if (as in this case) I find what the author has to say worth thinking about.

  2. So, two different things, by way of response:

    I wouldn't say that the ability to pay attention is a large part of what virtue is, though it certainly is an overlooked component of any given virtue -- perhaps of a given vice as well, one might say (though paying attention to the wrong things). I do think that attention is something that can be improved upon. I suppose one needn't be a virtue ethicist to think so -- but virtue ethicists will certainly fit into that camp, and have the conceptual resources to understand how and why attention ought to be improved.

    As to the format and style, I was introducing breaks into the texts of new articles, and going back to older articles in this blog to introduce them, and in my other blog -- but that revision process takes a bit of time, and I've been on vacation.

    I write Virtue Ethics Digest, and its sister blog, Orexis Dianoētikē, both for my readership and for myself. They're places where I get to play with language in ways different from what I have to do in writing articles, encyclopedia entry, book reviews, etc. -- where concision is demanded, and a more ciceronian style is excluded. So, though it may seem a bit self-indulgent, I plan to keep writing as I have been in those two blogs. As you note, there's a trade-off at work.

    Later on this year, I will be opening up a new, much more nuts-and-bolts blog, Practical Rationality, with much shorter, more concisely written entries.