Fractured Attention

From my standpoint, this looks like a cultural avalanche.  If there is something good about it, it is not yet visible to me. Today, I want to talk about technology and personal presence.  It seems to me that the more there is of the one, the less there is of the other.

Let’s start with the horror stories and work up.  This morning’s New York Times had an article with the headline: As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction GrowsThe article included an account of a patient who is clearly a victim of what the writer calls “distracted doctoring.”

Scott J. Eldredge, a medical malpractice lawyer in Denver, recently represented a patient who was left partly paralyzed after surgery. The neurosurgeon was distracted during the operation, using a wireless headset to talk on his cellphone, Mr. Eldredge said.

 “He was making personal calls,” Mr. Eldredge said, at least 10 of them to family and business associates, according to phone records. His client’s case was settled before a lawsuit was filed so there are no court records, like the name of the patient, doctor or hospital involved. Mr. Eldredge, citing the agreement, declined to provide further details.

This is bad, certainly, but the question I want to consider is how the neurosurgeon came to be making calls on his phone during surgery. Or how a nurse came to be checking airfares.  Or how the technicians running bypass machines came to be texting during a procedure.

I have a theory.  It is that what people my age call “the normal mode of operating” has been fractured.  Let’s take a moment and look at some words here.  An integer is whole.  It has not been “fractured,” although we would probably say “fractioned.”[1]  You have to “break” an integer to get fractions.  You can do the same with integrity, of course (integer/integrity); you can break it and so become a person of pieces, of fragments.

It is not hard to picture a wholeness of attention.  It is a romantic myth that we once had a society that was characterized by this wholeness of attention, but I do think that the duty of “seeming to attend” to what was going on did cut down on the extremes of inattention I am talking about.  If you grew up in a society where attention was routinely fractured, you would never have experienced the fracturing at all.  Having never experienced the wholeness of attention, you would never have experienced seeing that wholeness broken down.  What you would experience, instead, is the persistent multiple claims for attention and the normal-ness, the “rightness” of that multiplicity.  Maybe even the “inevitability.”

If the range of things you know you are expected to be doing in this new consciousness is in the range of 4—7, you might look at someone who was doing only three and think of him as a slacker.  Someone who was doing only one—all of his attention was committed to doing or experiencing or thinking about just this one thing—might be thought of as pathetically simple.  Simpleminded, maybe.  Singleminded.

I’ve argued so far that “people” are like this.  If people are like this, then they go on being like this when they become professionals—unless, of course, they learn to set it aside.  So, in this instance, functioning as a doctor is going to have to be set aside from “normal” in some way.  “When I’m being a doctor,” one would say, “I set aside the normal complexity (I’m trying to think what this person might call it—“complexity” maybe) of normal life and restrict myself to just this patient or just this diagnosis or just this procedure.”  Being a doctor, then, means the temporary setting aside of the normal and everyday fracturing of attention.[2]  Same thing for being a nurse or an anesthesiologist.  If you don’t do that, you will be left with monitoring the procedure and believing that should something require your full attention, you will know it and attend to it in a hurry.

I’ve had pretty good doctors.  Also, I’m a demanding patient.  If I am not getting the focus I think the session requires, I ask for it explicitly.  I haven’t had as much luck with students though.  I’m a professor and I do see a lot of what I might call “distracted studenting,” just to have something parallel to “distracted doctoring.”

I get students who are, for all practical purposes, passing each other notes.  They are texting each other.  They are on Facebook.  The very best of the ones who are not paying attention to what I am trying to get done in class are online,  checking to see if there are more recent public opinion data than those I just cited.  I don’t think my students are any less disciplined than my generation of students was.  I do think that the tools for “being somewhere else” are much more available and much more distracting.  But, much more importantly, I think that there has been a substantial erosion in the idea that one should be “here,” rather than here and here and here and there.

I want to describe why this is particularly hard for the kind of teaching I like best and try hardest to practice, but before I do that, I want to establish a reference point.  It’s an over the top example, but with the absurdity comes some clarity and I think it is worth it.

Imagine that a young man and a young woman are getting married.  Picture a wedding card couple.  Except that each of them has ear buds and is busy texting as the ceremony is going on.  The minister, unused to what he will see as a fractured attention, stops and explains to them gently that they are GETTING MARRIED and this means something and they should pay attention to it.  They look knowingly at each other, (the minister is one of those old “full attention to the one matter before us” guys) then the bride-to-be explains that they actually are tracking the ceremony carefully.  They know where they are in it and what is next.  When the time comes for them to say something, they will be ready, so could we just get on with the ceremony please?

Before I get back to my own classroom, let me ask you to stop and try to say just what is wrong with this couple. 

How is it going?  Hard, isn’t it?

 The truth is, in order to say just what is wrong with it, you have to say what really has to go on RIGHT THEN that is not getting done because of the “distracted marrying.”  What could they really not have accomplished before the ceremony or after; what really had to be done right then?

My kind of teaching emphasizes “concept attainment.”  I teach politics, so there’s always going to be a lot of “who’s leading in the polls” and “will the cap and trade bill every get passed by both houses in the same year?”  But we will also have to deal with whether Americans are really permanently strung up between procedural and substantive notions of what “democracy” means.  What is the fundamental structure of the phony “pro-life v. pro-choice” argument?[3]  Is the internal distribution of power in the House of Representatives more or less important than the balance of power between the House and the Presidency?  That kind of stuff.

It’s hard.  It takes undivided attention for a period of time.  You have to find a way to disentangle the tendrils of old patterns of thought and to replant those tendrils carefully on new surfaces.  You have to see what changing this idea means for that idea.  You have to know whether you are really willing to live with the implications of this new notion.  It isn’t easy and there is a part of it that really has to be done right then.  The class session needs, by one means or another, to reach the temperature at which old ties are loosened (which is precisely what analyze means—the root verb luein means “to loosen”) and are free to be attached in new ways.

You do it then or, chances are, you won’t do it.  That task requires an integrity of attention.  The normal fractured (or multiple-investment) style of attention is not going to do the job.  And that means that if we are going to continue to produce “people” like this, we are going to have to get those people who are also students to set aside what they think of as “the normal natural complexity of being a person” for the purpose of learning something.  If we take as our norm the difficulty the doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists have in setting this mode aside for the purpose of taking care of patients in surgery, we see that this is asking a lot of students.

In this coming term, I am going to keep this whole argument in mind and try, at the same time, to take a few small steps toward bring a focus to “what goes on within these four walls” during the time you are here.  I suspect it will involve “personalizing” a relationship that has been being “depersonalized” for decades now.  It will require redistributing the points awarded for performance so that the evaluation scheme of the class is not at war with my earnest entreaties to the students.

I don’t really know what these measures will look like, but I don’t think there is much time left to do it and I want to try.


[1] The verb here is frangere, “to break.”

[2] People of the old “focus on one thing at a time” mode—the fogies—might call it “inattention,” but we know it is just a new kind of attention: a lot of monitoring and attending as needed.

[3] Since no group thinks of their position as “anti-choice” or as “anti-life,” the structure of the dialogue is going to have to be torqued a little just to make discussion possible.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Education, Paying Attention, Political Psychology, ways of knowing, Words and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Fractured Attention

  1. Currently there is much made of the ability to multi-task and little made of the losses of doing so. Spiritual traditions extol the benefits of ‘being here, being now’. Perhaps there is room/necessity for both. I think the problem lies in knowing that there is a choice to be made for each activity undergone.

    • hessd says:

      I think you are exactly right–make the choice in each case and reap the rewards. I value very much the spiritual traditions that expand out ability to attend to one thing. I do think though, that if you can’t do that then you can’t choose it. You can’t flip it off and on like a switch, which I am sure you know. My worry is that the “room for both” position, which is certainly reasonable, might be applied to an ocean tide that relentlessly removes more and more of what used to be a beach, then more and more of what used to be a hill people lived on. In that circumstance, there really is not room for both.

  2. Doug says:

    Good post, Pop. I’m certainly as guilty of this as anyone. I don’t have a smartphone (yet), but just watching a movie or TV show without a computer in my lap is a tough one for me.

    Back when I was in school there was no Facebook and there were no cell phones, of course, but there was that fly buzzing around the light and the construction going on just outside the window. But today’s distractions aren’t just interesting, they’re interactive. They’re alluring because they fill the empty spaces of any moment so that your life feels more full. It’s life, but more so.

    I remember a scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in which Indiana is complaining to his father (Sean Connery) that they never talked, that the father was too busy when Indiana was a boy. In response, the father puts down his book and says, “Okay, let’s talk” and stares at Indy with ever-widening eyes. It’s a great and funny bit, but it illustrates the point that you can’t usually make great moments happen. They happen on their own, in their own time, and they will not be rushed. You just have to be present for them. Contestants must be present to win.

    So, as I read this, one phrase kept rolling around in my brain pan: undivided investment. Since learning really requires a feedback loop, what you need from your students is an investment in the class, which is the only way they’re going to be open to receive the complex ideas you’re putting out there. Their investment cannot be fractured, you need it to be whole and undivided among other things.

    That’s all I’ve got. You may now to back to watching FaceTube.


    • hessd says:

      “All you’ve” got has a way of turning out to be quite a lot, Doug. If I actually paid you anything for what you add the the quality of my thought life a payment would be on its way for the new category of “interactive distraction.” In the first draft of my post, I had a little paragraph about daydreaming and looking out the window and watching some kid in class try to get into trouble. I didn’t use that paragraph because I didn’t have a way to distinguish that from the new kind of distraction.

      But now I have a new dilemma. If “interactive” means only “I do something and then it does something,” then there is a clear meaning to “interactive.” But if it is really different when “I do something and then he (generic) does something,” which I suspect is true, then there is no clear meaning to “interactive.” At best, there is Interactive 1 (programs) and Interactive 2 (persons). When I was sorting through images to add to my post, I looked at pictures of men multitasking and women multitasking. The men were, by and large, “juggling” tasks, none of which was a contact with someone else. Women, by and large, were juggling some things and some persons. The women were dividing their attention among “objects,” some of which were tasks and some of whom were persons.

      I think dividing our attention among tasks is inevitable and harmless when the quality of performance on each task is taken for granted. Dividing our attention to people may be harmful in some cases, and I think it is catastrophically bad to have such behavior explicitly praised. “Valorized,” as they say.

      It is precisely this “whole attention” that some of the work of my classes will require and that I am now finding in shorter and shorter supply.

  3. davecc says:

    The most satisfying teaching I do now is one on one, in my office, working through written drafts students have produced and I am critiquing. That setting has a lot of built in features working towards attention: students have reason to be invested in the conversation; we have an object, the draft, to attend to together; when needed, I can make and keep eye contact as long as necessary to command attention or read how things are going. Even so, I notice that many students get antsy if that kind of conversation goes on for very long. A kind of switch goes off and that can’t take in any more. Then I notice that I tend to equate good student with “able to sustain attention and conversation” as much as with analytic skills, or writing abilities.
    P.S. email me…I can’t get yours to work.

  4. bpm says:

    “When information becomes cheap, attention becomes expensive.” one of my favorites to help me to remember to attend.

    • hessd says:

      That is POTENT, Barb. I had never heard it and it is so very true. Information has certainly become cheap. It will take more discipline than we have shown lately to attend when the price is so hign.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.