Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Are You Paying Attention?

Eric Barker's blog Barking up the wrong tree features an interesting little post, "Does doodling make you smarter?"

The conclusion of the study that Barker references--"Unlike many dual task situations, doodling while working can be beneficial"--is intriguing enough, but what really caught my attention is Barker's own subsequent commentary, especially this:

    ...Well, now I post this and play my trump card against every one of my elementary school teachers. (Have no illusions; just like all of you, I thrive on petty vengeance.)

Exactly! Not the petty vengeance paty--that goes without saying--but the elementary-school teachers part. (And junior-high teachers. And high school. Don't remember any of my college profs caring, however.) The assumption always seemed to be that doodling in the margins, which I do to this day, some 30 years after my college graduation, indicates a lack of attentiveness. I suppose it may do so, but my experience and observation incline me to think that it indicates greater attentiveness. A distraction it may be, but I think it's a way of distracting the hand while the mind focuses on the matter before it.

Likewise the closing of one's eyes.

We are taught from the earliest days that "paying attention" means "look at me." That makes sense in the case of a demonstration. But I have always found it easier to concentrate on a speaker if my eyes are closed. Unless I'm taking notes. In which case the results can be disastrous.

But in our society, to listen with eyes closed is somehow considered rude. It makes no more sense to think that my closed eyes mean I am not paying sufficient attention than to think that my fixed stare means I'm hanging on every syllable. And yet society seems to think that the latter is inarguably true.

Nor is it logical to assume that my closed eyes mean that I am asleep...although I must confess to having sat through any number of sermons, homilies, and presentations where that outcome could easily have occurred. Why my desire to shut out extraneous distractions (look at that bird on the window sill! I wonder how long that pencil has been embedded in that ceiling tile. It's annoying how that fluorescent tube keeps flickering) should be interpreted as an insult instead of a compliment is beyond me.

That said, I must weigh in with my belief that to engage oneself with a laptop or smartphone is not the same thing. Electronic devices distract the mind as well as the hand. I've taught enough classes with students hunched over their laptop computers--and, more to the point, graded their subsequent papers--to know they're not listening. Certainly they're not taking notes!

Oh, and that eyes closed thing? If snoring and/or drooling is involved, forget all that stuff I said above.

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