Civil Inattention

I once heard an adjunct professor say, “When I’m teaching, I’m the center of the room.”  Something there was in me that did not like the line. 

But I know the feeling.  A couple of weeks ago in one of my classes, the students were all abuzz with talk.  They were talking privately to people beside them, behind them, around them, even when their peers across the way were talking trying to raise a point for the whole class.  I felt snippy.  And why?  It wasn’t exactly a wild rumpus with a bunch of students playing Max in Where the Wild Things Are.  It was good that they were so animated, wasn’t it?  And haven’t I read about the phenomenon of “civil inattention,” especially chararacteristic of contemporary public spaces, whose citizens are accustomed to distributing their attention across multiple interfaces?  So, why did I feel as irritable as a schoolmarm?  (Actually, a schoolmarm of the nineteenth century could very well have been more tolerant of a dynamic classroom than I was being that day.)   I guess you could say that all the simul-casts felt like an infringement of basic political norms for respect.  But, really, now. 

Perhaps Dr. Seuess would have said that my head wasn’t screwed on just right or that my shoes were too tight.  But whatever the reason, my heart or my shoes, I caught myself saying, quite Grinchily, “I feel like I’m competing with you.”   I regretted saying it almost immediately, not least for its implication that the proper alternative to a competitive classroom was a centered classroom–centered on me.  And my dog Max.

(Hmm.  That’s two children’s book allusions with two different characters named Max.  I need to find a couch and a literary therapist.)

So, that got me thinking that night: what is a good vision for the classroom?  What is a useful figure to work with as we think about educational life?   Here’s a provisional one to consider.

What about thinking of the learning space as a wheel?  The hub of the action is not the teacher’s lectern, nor is it the student’s seat. The hub is (perhaps quite literally) the center of the room, the in-between-space.  We all, teacher and students, are on the periphery, wanting to move towards the center. When words bubble up in us, the impulse is not something to squelch.  Nor is it something to hiccup out to the nearest person.  The rising of words within should direct us to the center of the space.  Think of the in-between space at as the place where the shared project of teaching and learning is going on. That’s where the action is.  When a person begins to speak–raises a hand, leans forward, juts a chin, widens the eyes, whatever the cue–that person is saying , “I think I have a way to move towards the heart of our shared project.” It might actually help, especially in those carefully organized spaces in the Classroom Building, to turn one’s body towards the center of the room in the practice of speaking.

What do you think?  How would you critique that room-picture?  What’s your alternative?


One comment on “Civil Inattention

  1. Dan says:

    This medium demands I keep it short, so short I shall keep it.

    My convictions rests in the fact that there exists wrong conceptions of teacher/student/shared project interplay in the minds of good people. I will only give brief time to it, because I feel it’s background noise to what we all are circling around here – to, well, apply the “wheel” hub perspective on learning.

    I feel that pedantic themes run in my own blood. Yes, that’s a confession. Attending Trinity and embracing community here has – to borrow a way of describing it from Dr. Sierra – opened the proverbial window into a world of this “wheel” interplay. Pedantic interplay is not humbling. It’s infused with pride. As the blood boils with pride, the mind collapses under the intense heat and pressure in the cranium.

    Thus, I am arguing here that there exists at least both a humble and a prideful interplay. There could be more perspectives as I am ignorant to pedagogy.

    The interplay described in this blog post suggests a shared involvement. This shared involvement shouts, “We are a learning community.” It also says, “We are all traveling the same road. May the wise add to their learning and grow wiser still!” To carry the metaphor to a literal point, it makes sense “to turn one’s body towards the center of the room in the practice of speaking.”

    My alternative has been the pedantic route. I know of no others. Knowledge, wisdom, insight, and understanding must be close to the wheel. Therefore, I shall enter into it happily with others.

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