The National Endowment for the Humanities on Monday announced a new grant program to promote the publication of serious nonfiction, based on scholarly research, on subjects of general interest and appeal. Winners of the grants will receive stipends of $4,200 per month for 6-12 months. A statement from NEH Chairman William D. Adams said: “In announcing the new Public Scholar program we hope to challenge humanities scholars to think creatively about how specialized research can benefit a wider public.”
Attention is how the mind prioritizes. The brain’s attention circuits stay busy throughout our waking hours, directing on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis where our limited cognitive resources are going to go, monitoring the information that floods into our senses, and shaping conscious experience. Attention is one of the most mysterious and compelling topics in cognitive science. Years of research on the subject are now paying off handsomely in the form of recent advances in our understanding of how these mechanisms work, on both theoretical and physiological levels. And the more we learn, the more we realize that these findings aren’t just important for theory-building -- they offer myriad practical applications that can help people function more effectively across all aspects of life. Teaching and learning is one area where attention research is especially useful for helping us get better at what we do.
In my book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I foreground attention as the starting point for everything designers of college-level online learning experiences should know about human cognition. Without attention, much of what we want students to accomplish -- taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills -- simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity, whether online or face-to-face.
But how does this principle play out in a contemporary learning environment littered with tempting distractions -- the smartphones that accompany students to class, social networks that let us reach out to friends around the clock, the sites for games, media, and shopping that beckon every time we open our browsers? It’s especially concerning given how overly optimistic people tend to be about their ability to juggle different tasks. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon eloquently explain in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, human beings are notoriously bad at knowing what we can handle, attention-wise. Essentially, we lie to ourselves about what we notice and what we know, believing that we take in much more that we actually do.
For our students, this adds up to a serious drain on learning. And as learning environments become more complex, it is a drain they can’t afford. Consider, for example, some forms of blended learning in which students master foundational knowledge outside of class, usually through online work, then spend class time on focused application and interaction with instructors and classmates. A tightly scheduled and synchronized system like this can work beautifully, but doesn’t allow much margin of error for wasted time and scattered focus.
So what can we do about this situation? One strategy is to educate students about the limits of attention and just how much they miss when they choose to multitask. This, however, is easier said than done. Incorporating a learning module on attention is straightforward enough, but what would it take for such a module to be effective? First, it would need to be brief and to the point, reinforcing just a few crucial take-home messages without a great deal of history, theory or other background more appropriate to a full-length course in cognition. At the same time, quality control would be a major concern, especially for the module to be usable by an instructor without academic training in cognitive psychology. Just Googling for materials on attention brings up at least as much pseudoscience as reputable work, and without this solid scientific grounding, a module on the dangers of multitasking could easily devolve into a “Reefer Madness”-style experience, more laughable than persuasive.
Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, I’ve worked with my instructional designer colleague John Doherty to create a free-standing, one-shot online learning module called Attention Matters that instructors can drop into existing courses as an extra credit or required assignment. Besides being scrupulous about the science, John and I prioritized interactivity and use of the multimedia capabilities of online learning -- enabling us to show students, not just tell them, what distraction can do to performance in different contexts. Too many online learning activities consist essentially of glorified PowerPoint slides, so although there is a certain amount of text within our module, we put most of the emphasis on media, demonstrations, self-assessment and discussion.
As an example, we used a demonstration we called the “Selective Reading Challenge” to show students how attention mechanisms constantly filter incoming information, and also, how little we remember of information we don’t attend to. The demonstration consists of a page of text, alternating lines of bold and regular typefaces. Students are instructed to pay attention to only the bold lines, ignoring everything else, then proceed immediately to the next page. In the “to be ignored” text, we hide a few stimuli that may break through to awareness -- a couple of common names (Michael, Emily, Stephen, Christina), that if they belong to you, will probably pop out, as well as a few attention-grabbing emotional terms (911, murder). After completing the “selective reading,” students are invited to go back review the entire page of text -- bold and regular -- to see what they missed, and what they (likely) don’t remember at all even though it was well within the field of vision.
Other demonstrations illustrate the dramatic slowdown in processing that takes place when we multitask among competing activities. We present an online version of the classic “Stroop effect” to illustrate how distraction -- even from other mental processes going on at the same time -- can make a simple activity slow and inaccurate. The task involves naming the colors of a sequence of multicolored words -- not a difficult task, except when the words are themselves color names. red, green, blue, and so on – that contradict the colors they are printed in. Lastly, we pulled in several video clips from around the Web to drive home the multitasking point. One shows a prank “driving test” in which unsuspecting students were told to text while navigating a practice course, with predictably disastrous results. Another classic clip called “The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick,” created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, dramatically illustrates how attending to one part of a scene causes us to miss major developments going on in practically the same location.
These videos, activities and demonstrations form the anchor for brief, impactful student learning activities throughout the module. Students respond to discussion prompts asking them whether the demonstrations worked on them as predicted, and what they may mean for everyday attention. They also complete self-quizzes with feedback that target the different learning outcomes for each part of the module. At the end, they revisit what they have learned in a brief self-reflection and survey on attitudes and beliefs about attention and its importance for learning.
Attention Matters is an exciting project, offering us the opportunity to apply cognitive science in a novel and – we hope – useful way. The project also has a research component, through which we will be gathering data on student attitudes and beliefs about their own attentional capabilities, as well as on the frequency of different multitasking behaviors in their own lives.
There’s another important side to Attention Matters, and that has to do with the collaboration between an instructional design expert and a Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Much has been written about the virtues of instructional design experts’ pairing up with SMEs, and yet, such collaborations remain fairly rare within higher education. We hope that this project demonstrates the real benefits to be gained – perhaps motivating others to take the plunge.
It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts of Attention Matters are going to be, or to predict exactly what we might discover about student attitudes and behaviors around multitasking. But I do foresee that as seismic change continues to occur in higher education, we will see more educators entering similar new territory – collaboratively creating focused, technologically delivered learning modules that live outside of traditional courses and use learning theory and cognitive science as the basis for design. And in our case, we may be able to add to our arsenal of strategies for getting students to become better stewards of their own attention.
The University of Illinois at Chicago is at risk of losing $4.5 million if the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rehires James Kilgore as an adjunct, The Chicago Tribunereported. Kilgore has a strong record as an adjunct but was dropped from teaching last year amid reports about his criminal past with the Symbionese Liberation Army. While Kilgore was open abut that history when he was hired, some questioned his suitability to teach, while many faculty groups said that he should be judged on his performance as an adjunct, not his past. The Illinois board last month cleared the way for Kilgore to be rehired, and the Tribune reported that departments are in fact starting the process to employ him.
But the Tribune reported that Richard Hill, a Chicago businessman who last year pledged $6.5 million to the Illinois-Chicago bioengineering department, has informed the university that if it proceeds with Kilgore's rehiring, he will not give the $4.5 million that remains on his pledge. "I no longer wish to be associated with University of Illinois," he wrote to the university. "The academy at the University of Illinois has clearly lost its moral compass." In an email to the Tribune explaining his views, he said, "I will not contribute neither time nor money to such a morally debased enterprise.... If they stand up and police their own organization to assure they are of the highest standards, I will stand with them till my dying days."
“Would you mind telling me what those four years of college were for?”
So asks the father of Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of "The Graduate." A half-century after Mike Nichols made this film, it remains popular at "senior week" events and other end-of-college rituals. And that's because we still haven't answered its central question: what are we doing here, and why?
When Nichols died in November, obituaries inevitably depicted "The Graduate" as an emblem of youth alienation in postwar America. In the 1967 film’s most iconic line, a family friend gives young Braddock a single word of advice: “plastics.” The term became an ironic rallying cry for a rising generation of rebellious Americans, who rejected their elders’ bland conformity and empty consumerism.
But Braddock simply repeats the phrase — “plastics” — in a glassy-eyed stupor. As Nichols told an interviewer after the film’s release, Braddock is “a kid drowning among objects and things, committing moral suicide by allowing himself to be used finally like an object or thing.” Young Benjamin knows what he doesn’t like, but he has no idea how — or even whether — to change it.
That’s why Nichols decided to give the role to an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman instead of to an established star like Robert Redford, who also campaigned for the part. When Hoffman read the book on which the film was based, he told Nichols that Braddock should be played by Redford or by another classically handsome white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
But Nichols had something very different in mind. He saw Braddock as an anti-hero, a loser who sleepwalks through life instead of awakening to its challenges. So the director chose a Jewish actor — with dark, ungainly features — instead of the “walking surfboards” (as Nichols mockingly called them) who usually won the big Hollywood roles.
Braddock has an ambivalent and depressingly passionless affair with one of his parents’ friends, Mrs. Robinson, whose name would be immortalized in the song that Paul Simon wrote for the film. (The other Simon and Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack, including “Sounds of Silence,” predated the movie.) Then Braddock falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley.
Conventional to his core, Braddock resolves to win Elaine in the most predictable, socially acceptable fashion: by marrying her. He drives his sportscar up to the Bay Area, where Nichols treats us to the famous shot of Hoffman speeding across the Bay Bridge (but in the wrong direction, as film buffs often note). The budget-conscious Nichols shot most of his college scenes at the University of Southern California, which was much closer to his studio, although we do get a few glimpses of the neighborhood abutting Cal-Berkeley.
What we do not get is a sense of the Free Speech Movement, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, or any of the other political passions that enveloped Berkeley in the late 1960s. The only hint is an exchange with a hostile boardinghouse manager, who inquires whether Braddock is an “agitator"; a few scenes later, a young tenant (played by Richard Dreyfuss, in one of his first roles) asks the manager if he should call the police to arrest Braddock.
On what charge? Braddock isn’t a threat to anyone at the university, where he follows Elaine through the humdrum rhythms of college life — to a class, to the library — while a clock chimes from the tower overhead. There’s nothing here to engage either of them, except the fact that Elaine is herself engaged to be married — and not to Braddock. So he has to win the girl from his rival, who looks very much like Mike Nichols’ walking-surfboard stereotype.
The film’s courtship rituals feel altogether dated in today’s era of student hook-ups and delayed marriage. But the aimless ennui of college should be familiar to anyone who works or studies at one. We have millions of students who are simply drifting through college, just like Benjamin Braddock does in his parents’ pool. As my colleague Richard Arum and his co-author Josipa Roksa have shown, the average undergraduate studies 12 hours per week, and more than a third report studying less than 5 hours a week.
On the other end of the spectrum are the so-called Organization Kids, who have been programmed to climb the social ladder at all costs. They do hit the books, early and often, but there’s something soulless and depressing about their grim quest for grades, connections, and jobs. They’re “excellent sheep,” to quote the title of William Deresiewicz’ recent book, going along in order to get ahead.
In the years since Mike Nichols made "The Graduate," we have transformed our universities into truly mass institutions. Soon, we are told, we'll have "college for all." But college for what? Asked that by his befuddled father, Benjamin Braddock replies simply, “You got me.” We've got to come up with a better answer than that.
The University of Georgia is moving to terminate a psychology lecturer found to be in violation of the institution’s policy on student-professor relationships for a second time, the Athens Banner-Herald reported. The lecturer, Rich Suplita, says he plans to leave the university anyway, but has appealed the results of the most recent investigation, saying they are “completely inconclusive based on the evidence.” Suplita said his “personal conviction is I’m not in any way in violation.”
Suplita admitted, however, that he had violated the university’s relationship policy in 2012, by dating an undergraduate in his class; the institution prohibits relationships between instructors and students over whom they have authority. Suplita was reprimanded in that case. This year, after he started dating a teaching assistant assigned to one of the classes he taught, administrators again accused him of violating the policy. But Suplita said this relationship does not go against university policy since he did not technically oversee the teaching assistant.
The Greek philosopher and scientist Theophrastus would probably have remained forever in the shadow of Aristotle, his teacher and benefactor (a very big shadow, admittedly) if not for a little volume of personality sketches called Characters he wrote at the age of 99. At least that’s what he claims in the preface. The first character type he portrays is called “The Ironical Man,” so it’s possible he was just putting everyone on.
After long years of people-watching, Theophrastus says, he resolved to depict “the good and the worthless among men,” although what we actually have from his pen is a rogues’ gallery of shady, annoying, or ridiculous characters – 30 in all – including the Boor, the Garrulous Man, the Superstitious Man, and the Man of Petty Ambition. It could be there was a second volume, depicting virtuous and noble personality types, which has been lost. Or maybe he intended to write one but never got started, or did but quit from boredom. When he focuses on weaknesses and foibles it is with relish. The Offensive Man “will use rancid oil to anoint himself at the bath; and will go forth into the market-place wearing a thick tunic, and a very light cloak, covered with stains.” The Patron of Rascals “will throw himself into the company of those who have lost lawsuits and have been found guilty in criminal causes; conceiving that, if he associates with such persons, he will become more a man of the world, and will inspire the greater awe.” And so forth.
It’s not hilarious, but the humor works, and the types all remain familiar. The adjustments a reader has to make between Theophrastus’s references to clothing and institutions in ancient Greece and everyday life today are pretty slight. It’s not hard to understand why Characters became a fairly popular work in antiquity and then again in the 17th century, when imitations of it became a literary fashion and an influenced early novelists.
The character sketch seems to have died off as a genre some while back, apart from for the occasional homage such as George Eliot’s The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, her last work of fiction. But I recently came across a sort of revival in the form of a series of sketches called “Typology of scholars” by Roland Boer, an associate professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Newcastle, in Australia.
A couple of weeks ago Boer won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize (sort of an equivalent of the Pulitzer for Marxist scholarship) for Criticism of Heaven and Earth, a study of the ongoing interaction of Marxism with theology and the Bible – the fifth volume of which just appeared from the European scholarly publisher Brill, with previous installment issued in paperback from Haymarket Press. I would be glad to write about it except for being stuck in volume two. The news that volume five brings the series to a close is somewhat encouraging, but in the shorter term it only inspired me to look around at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. (Anyone attempting to extract ideological significance from that title does so at his or her own peril. Boer himself indicates that it was inspired by General Tito’s remark “Stalin is known the world over for his moustache, but not for his wisdom.”)
In the inaugural post Boer explains that “Typology of scholars” was inspired by a single question: “ ‘What is a university like?’ someone asked me who fortunately had no experience whatsoever with these weird places.” Originally announced as a series that would run for a few days in December 2011, it actually continued for six months, though the last few character sketches are lacking in the piss and vinegar of the first several.
Like Theophrastus, Boer, too, has assembled a rogue’s gallery. Whatever the particularities of Australian academic culture, “Typology” depicts varieties of Homo academicus probably found everywhere.
So here’s a sampler. (I have imposed American spelling and punctuation norms.)
The Lord: “[T]he high-handed professor distributes funds, hands out favors, relies on a servile court of aspiring scholars to reinforce his own sense of superiority. And the Lord deems that the only people really worth talking to are other lords, visiting them in their domains, perhaps lecturing the local serfs.…
"[N]otice how the lord refers to ‘my’ doctoral students, ‘my’ postdocs, ‘my’ center, or even ‘my’ university. Our worthy lord may treat her or his serfs in many different ways, with benevolence, with disdain, as a source of new ideas that can then be ‘recycled’ as the lord’s own. So the serfs respond accordingly, although usually it is a mix of resentment and slavish subservience. On the one hand, the lord is a tired old hack who is really not so interesting, who may be derided in the earshot of the other serfs, and whose demise cannot come quickly enough. On the other hand, the serfs will come to the defense of their lord should an enemy appear, for they owe their livelihood and future prospects to the Lord.
“Of course, as soon as a serf manages to crawl into a coveted lordship, she acts in exactly the same manner.”
The Overlooked Genius: “The way the star system has developed in academia means that few of us are happy to remain incognito, quietly walking in the mountains and jotting in a small notebook, sending books off to a press and selling maybe four or five – like Nietzsche (although he was also pondering the advanced effects of syphilis).... In order to make it through the long apprenticeship, at the end of which someone who is forty is still regarded as ‘youthful,’ an intellectual needs to develop some survival skills, especially a belief that what he or she is doing is important, so crucial that the future of the human race depends upon it...... Our unnoticed genius spends his or her whole time asserting that everyone around him or her, in whatever context if not the discipline as a whole, is as dumb as an inbred village.”
The Borrower: “The Borrower may seize upon the papers of a colleague who has resigned in disgust and use them, unrevised, in a scintillating paper. Or the Borrower may ask a newly made ‘friend’ for a copy of his latest research paper, only to pump out something on the same topic and publishing it quickly – using established networks. Possibly the best example is a very creative head honcho at an unnamed university. Dreading solitary space, a blank piece of paper, and an empty mind, he would gather a group at his place, ply them with food and grog, and ask, ‘Now what about this question?’ After a couple of hours talk, he would say to Bill: ‘Why don’t you write a draft paper on this and then pass it around?’ Bill would do so, the others would add their revisions and he would ensure his name was on the piece.”
The Politician: “It can truly be said that the politician is one who has never had a thought without reading or hearing it somewhere else. What really sets the juices going, however, is the thought of wielding ‘power.’
“So she or he salivates at the thought of a committee, leaps at the chance for a heavy administrative role in which power can be lorded over others, sleeps with this one or that higher up the rung in order to gain crucial insights that may come in handy, who spends long hours pondering his next move to gain access to the powers that be.
"With their feudal-like structures, universities lend themselves to labyrinthine intrigue, favors done, gaining the ear of a heavyweight, eliminations carried out through humiliation and whispers, the bending of rules in order to edge ever upward.… The Politician is probably one of the saddest of all types, since the power you can accrue in a university is bugger-all.”
The Big Fish in a Slimy Pond: “A great temptation for some of us in that attractive life of academia: this is, obviously, the situation in which one may be a big shot in one’s own little circle. ... [able to] hold forth on any topic with absolute abandon…. “
The moment of truth for the Big Fish comes when faced with “a big conference, or perhaps a new and larger circle of scholars who actually know something, or a situation slightly more than a group of fresh-faced, worshipful students. … [O]n the one visit to the big arena, our knowledgeable scholar opines that no-one knows what they are talking about, since all those hundreds of papers from around the world are worthless, so it’s not worth going again. Or they are too traditional and I’m just too much of a radical for them all, so I’ll give that a miss….
“Instead, the apparently big fish can return to the small, stagnant pond, getting fat on pond slime and the perceived authority that comes from being the person with one eye among the blind.”
(It's worth mentioning that he example of the Big Fish that Boer gives is "the theologian who becomes an expert in, say, feminism, or cultural criticism, or Marxism, but stays purely within theology where she or he is a real 'authority.' God forbid that you should actually spend some time with real gender critics, or Marxists, or psychoanalysts." His character sketch is a self-portrait, or at least piece of a self-satire.)
As noted earlier, imitations of the character sketches of Theophrastus became popular in the 17th century, when (maybe not so coincidentally) the novel was starting to take shape as a distinct literary form. Plot was, in effect, the boiling water into which authors dissolved the little packets of crystallized personal psychology found in Characters and its knock-offs.
It occurs to me that Boer’s “Typologies of the scholar” reverses the process: It’s an academic novel, except in freeze-dried form. That’s not a problem, since plot is rarely an academic novel’s strong point. What the reader enjoys, typically, is character as caricature -- and Boer’s approach is arguably a lot more efficient.