Attention in the 21st century

By dryadart


24 tiny net boxes under construction

So I am primarily an artist, and not only am I an artist, I am an artist who is drawn to involved laborious repetitive tasks as a marker. I joke about this all of the time, I was thinking about it this week as I was spending about 10 hours a day sewing tiny little two inch cubes out of net curtain by hand for a new project I am working on the studio. Obviously while my hands are engaged in this activity my mind isn’t always fully present, but it is mostly on the task at hand, so I don’t screw it up and have to repeat it. My life is really mostly lived in my hands, where I work.

So what does this have to do with teaching? I am sure you are asking yourself – if you have not already become so bored by the slow beginning that you are getting ready to leave. Well part of my teaching is in Studio classes, with this “new” generation of students who supposedly came with keyboards in hand. (A subject I am not even going to touch in this post except to say I am equally or more tech savvy than many of my 21st century students). What I am about to say is by nature a generalization of my experience with many students – not all students are any if these things – BUT most of my students have very little experience with stuff, materials and stuff. And they don’t have much patience with it either – as it doesn’t have an undo button but requires you instead to start all over again! What am I thinking asking them to do these things, these manual things?

The answers in a studio class come from experimentation – you cannot read the answer somewhere, you have to try it. I can make recommendations for possible places to begin, but only the act of making will tell you if this is the right answer for you and your work. Google can recommend a type of glue, you can read a bunch of blogs, but until you actually DO something you’ll never know if it will work. Boy do my students hate that. They think all the answers are out there. And really, waiting for paint to dry – are you crazy? Heaven forbid it will be the wrong kind of paint after all that waiting and they will have to START OVER!

In my lecture classes students are amazed that I have information IN MY HEAD! Why should they memorize stuff they can just Google? What is the benefit (or reward) for storing all that stuff in my head? Thank heavens that image search browsers suck – or I’d never be able to convince them to learn to identify images for exams by memorization!

So to go back to the beginning of my thought ( I should maybe have warned you that artists are not generally very linear thinkers). I am wondering is it a generational thing, or a personality thing, that I am slow in this way? Is there something about learning in a connected online way that reduces attention? It seems to me that my students, with their smart phone lifestyle are not patient. They don’t know how to wait for a slightly out of focus idea to unfold. They struggle with critical thinking because a search engine can’t bring them an answer. They don’t seem to have very good crap radars, they believe the first Google search will be accurate and correct. I wonder if they are losing the ability to debate.

Lest you suspect me of disliking this generation – I don’t. I find them funny and smart in their own ways, (and I have three kids) but I wonder about scholarship. Who will want to take the time to be with one tiny idea long enough to be an expert when all of us Luddites who read books (the paper kind) and store knowledge in our heads are gone. And art? who will make it, will we even need objects in the real world as time goes on?

4 thoughts on “Attention in the 21st century

  1. These attitudes exist – but largely, I would think, because of parents and teachers who are not laying the foundations for the acquisition of knowledge and love of reading etc to go hand-in-hand with the technology and ‘quick-fixes’.

    • interesting point – reading was identified as an issue in the UK in recent years and there has been a mix of initiatives to encourage children to read and develop their own strategies. I saw rhis with some of my relatives where one child hated reading initially but developed his own way of becoming familiar with e:g letter shapes and now reads small books happily.. Some of the best early online learning was developed late 90s, early 2000s for language learning (e.g. auralog) which at the time was quote advanced in its field.

      • What seems to be neglected increasingly is the importance of reading as the fastest way to gain and understand information, and the accompanying vital aspect of continually increasing vocabulary. Training towards intelligent forms of speedreading accompanied by maximum comprehension seems to be neglected. I know that by elimination of sub-vocalization and viewing paragraphs as a whole my own speed and comprehension both increase significantly. Doing this properly takes a lot of conscious effort and practice, though, so trainers and parents need to be on board.

  2. My dear artists, reading is not the only way to learning. there is learning by doing. Learning to saw, hammer, use scissors, make music, it is all just doing, and doing again. Same with learning to read and write and paint.
    Your hands need to know materials, so a child’s hands needs not only plastic toys.
    Your eyes must learn to steer your fingers.

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