Distraction, Deep listening, and Devices in the Classroom 

“What are the pedagogical benefits of looking out the window in class, or looking into the screen of a digital device?”

The new semester is humming along nicely, and I am relishing several uninterrupted moments to gather my thoughts after the initial rush of classlists and classroom swaps and name memorizations. This recent barrage of small tasks may partially explain why Janine Utell’s recent article for the Chronicle on Deep Listening resonated so harmoniously with me. Instead of the fidgety energy that reacts urgently to multiple sources of stimulation, deep listening channels that energy into an active focus on only one such source. Such focus seems to better enable the processing, synthesizing, dare I say harmonizing of my thoughts and feelings with those of the person(s) I am currently focused on. A commitment to creating a space for this kind of listening underlies the restrictions I currently have in place on non-course related technology use in the classroom. But recent tweets from @Jessifer (Jesse Stromel) and @HybridPed (Hybrid Pedagogy) in response to the #digped conversation on in-class laptop use bring up compelling arguments against legislating on distraction the classroom. Stromel says “A classroom device policy reduces the complexity of attention / distraction to a point I usually find counter-productive” and Hybrid Pedagogy similarly says “Is distraction something we can manage for someone else? What happens when we valorize attention over distraction in the classroom?” and “What are the pedagogical benefits of looking out the window in class, or looking into the screen of a digital device?” These arguments go beyond many of the usual ones in favor of allowing students to determine on their own how best to manage their focus–arguments that I find less compelling because distraction is not a solitary act but affects those in view of one’s screen, of one’s lack of eye contact, of one’s loss of the thread of a discussion. Stromel and HybridPed, however, go so far as to valorize the condition of distraction itself. Beyond arguing that checking status updates on facebook may not be much different from doodling or looking out the window, they are also making space for the mental, emotional, and psychic need for breaks from focus. This perspective may not diminish my own valorization of deep listening and conscientious presence in the classroom, but it insists on the reality and (probably) necessity of breaks from the intensity of such practice. Time to think about the wording and presentation of the technology policy as more of an invitation to decide as a class how we’d like to acknowledge and enable distraction in forgiving but also respectful ways, perhaps?

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