[iDC] attention and the classroom

Eric Gordon eric_gordon at emerson.edu
Tue Jun 9 15:46:03 UTC 2009

I've been following the conversation about the Internet as playground  
and factory with great interest and have been inspired to chime in.   
Lately I've been thinking about that most mysterious currency of the  
Internet: user attention.  Certainly, the economy of the Internet  
trades in it.  As Frank pointed out awhile back: "We all “pay  
attention” (literally and figuratively) at monolithic sites like  
Google, Facebook, and eBay."  Their business model is premised on how  
much we pay attention and how little we stray.  What's interesting to  
me is how this model of monolithic attention gathering has  
similarities to the models of attention we have established for the  
classroom.  Students should pay total attention to the professor.   
Distractions like open windows, buzzing from florescent light bulbs,  
chatter in the hallway, or god forbid, laptops and cell phones,  
threaten to chip away at the age old concept of undivided attention.   
In fact, these distractions threaten to turn classroom attention into  
an economy - where there is exchange and value for glances, foci, and  
thoughts.  In the 1970s, Erving Goffman gave a lecture called "The  
Lecture."  In it, he challenges the dominance of the subject of the  
lecture and its corresponding forward facing gaze and suggests that,  
in fact, students also pay attention to what he calls "the custard" of  
the situation - that stuff, including the joke before the lecture  
begins, the notes on the table, the noises in the room.  All of this  
composes the situation and necessarily, the attention of students  
flows in and out of the custard and subject at hand.

The Internet provides a new way into the context Goffman introduced  
decades ago.  Open laptops with live twittering, web searching, SMS -  
all of this is part of the custard of interaction and part of the  
economy of attention that composes the situation of the classroom.   
Instead of banning these technologies from the classroom, as many a  
university is want to do, the answer is instead to harness them and to  
actively participate in establishing the rules of the economy.  In an  
article I recently completed with my colleague David Bogen, I refer to  
this process as "designing choreographies of attention."  (The  
complete article can be found here: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/2/000049.html) 
.    We argue that educators should not fall back on monolithic models  
of undivided attention, and instead engage in this kind of design,  
which can transform the space of the classroom - complicating the  
relationships between front and back, professor and student, and peer  
to peer.  In this case, the particular and thoughtful appropriation of  
Internet tools challenges the traditional economies of attention -  
both those established by the professorate centuries ago as well as  
those perpetuated by Google and its ilk.  Despite its dominant  
business models, the Internet can help us rethink traditions; it can  
help us break down barriers and transform spaces.  I'm interested in  
seeing this happen in the classroom.  I'm interested in using these  
tools to harness distraction as a means of producing more vibrant (and  
dare I say focused) educational spaces.

I'm quite interested to know how others respond to this proposition  
and specifically how it might feed into the larger discussion about  
labor.  Indeed, students' attention is labor, whether it's undivided  
or not.

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