Frenetic. That was the word I taught my ESL and co-requisite freshman writers during the second week of our 15-week term. The pace of the first two weeks had left them frazzled. In nine hours of face-to-face class time, we completed diagnostic writing, learned how to log in to the online program that accompanies the text, practiced creating and sharing Google Docs, and figured out how to access course materials in Blackboard. In the midst of those technical preliminaries, students selected a general writing-about-writing focus for a course-long research project, and we began the hunt for source material, learning to evaluate potential sources, summarize a strong source, and reflect on the reading and writing process.
I have arrived in the classroom for each session harried, distracted by combination locks on a laptop cabinet, and ready to “get it done”; at the same time, I’ve been working on two book revisions, a review of dual enrollment syllabi for my department, a draft of our spring schedule, and our QEP.
Frenetic, indeed. In the last class, I glanced at a student from West Africa, who sat staring at the screen (where we had sorted some new vocabulary) with a look of befuddled consternation. There was lively conversation in groups throughout the rest of the room, yet this young man was silent. After class, he spoke to me about the pace of the course. It was just too fast for him; he wanted to read and write more slowly, not because he lacked skill, but because he wanted to think. “But,” I protested, “we don’t have time…there is a schedule we must keep.”
Perhaps, I thought, the student is operating from a culturally-constrained pace or conception of time. He will have to adapt to our understanding, I reasoned – and perhaps my class could help him do that. But then I came across two articles that made me re-think that hasty assessment. One article, which addresses William James and his notion of attention, appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. I was struck by this quote from James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” The second article was Mulhouser, Blouke, and Schafer’s fascinating look at #kairos through the lens of Star Wars. The opening section of that article, aptly titled “Episode 1,” refers to Richard Lanham’s work on the “attention economy,” where value is determined by the degree of attention given – and to one’s ability to catch and hold the attention of others.
Perhaps the crux of the issue is not so much time (or the lack of it), but attention. The student from Cameroon had chosen to attend to our vocabulary study, thoughtfully, but I pushed students to turn their attention to a group activity instead. My goal was to retain the attention of the native speakers in the class, who (I assumed) were socially conditioned to demand constant shifting of attention. Ironically, my efforts to make the class engaging may have thwarted the dynamics of attention that engendered learning for this student—and others.
In some languages, there is no root verb meaning “teach.” Rather, teach is a causative variant of the verb “learn.” So teaching is crafting the context or experience that allows for learning, and while attention cannot be forced, it can be impeded. In other words, our classroom practice should encourage—not obstruct—attention, so that students experience threshold concepts of our field.
My frenetic pace works against this goal.
Later that same day, a student from the Dominican Republic knocked at my office door. “I know you are so busy,” he said, “but tell me when you might have a little time for me.”
This student needed my attention, not just my time. His deference shows respect, but it also suggests an underlying reality that I see in many of my students: as members of an “attention economy,” they value my attention, and yet they don’t perceive themselves in a position to ask for it. Marginalization exists in troublesome ways in this economy of attention.
Even in my own speech I may enforce such marginalization: I often ask students to pay attention to various things: parts of the text, details of the assignment, my instructions. “Pay” – this is what we do for things that have value. And yet my word choice sometimes changes when I am approached by students: “I will see if I can give this a little attention.” “Give,” not “pay.” I may be overthinking this, but I sense an implied arrogance here: I give attention, but I demand that students pay. To affirm their value in this economy of attention, I must pay attention to them, not just my syllabus; they are relevant and worth the price of my attention.
Frenetic is derived from the Greek; it suggests insanity, a mind that is out of control. Attention, in contrast, comes from a Latin root; it suggests extending, stretching towards something. After a frenetic two weeks, it’s time to attend more thoughtfully to the pace of my class. I need to slow down and pay attention to the students and their learning – trusting, in turn, that they will stretch themselves towards the learning that is before them.