Some years ago, Stanley Fish famously wrote a book asking “Is there a text in this class?” It was a question laden with postmodern suspicions and uncertainties. These days talking about a text makes you think of another sort of question: should you text in class?
Not if you buy the postmodern proverb that the greatest scarcity of our time is attention. A lot of smart people (not just professors) are pretty worried about how distracted we are (not just when texting in class). Let me tick off for you a list of books about distraction:
The Shallows (Nicholas Carr)
Quiet (Susan Cain)
Rapt (Maggie Jackson)
Distracted (Winifred Gallagher)
Note these books’ very short titles—as if marketed to very short attention spans! But these books do make a certain good sense. Our lives are indeed so full of screens and speakers and buzzing and flickering devices that we constantly jitterbug from one point of focus to another. And if a student texting in class isn’t always obnoxious, a driver texting at a green light most certainly is. Our inability to concentrate is worrisome. We can’t seem to read deeply, listen deeply, be deeply anywhere.
Faced with this predicament of distraction, all these books more or less make the same recommendations:
- Secure the self
- Buffer the self.
- Wall the self.
Make a space in your life for focus. In fact, all these books assume that productive individuals rationally select an object to focus on. And then they do it. They attend.
But you know, there are students who don’t text in class who nonetheless pay the wrong sort of attention. They are so focused on what the professor is saying that they never seem to notice that anyone else is in the class. They are paying attention, so what could be wrong? They’ve selected the object of their attention, and they’re sticking to it. But both their peers and their professors could sometimes wish they’d broaden the surface area of their attention. Maybe laugh now and then. And maybe direct a wiseacre comment to somebody one row back.
Think about it this way. Maybe, for all their distractedness, students who text in class have problems that they suspect a rationally selective attention won’t speak to. Maybe they’re aware of predicaments that pester all of us that no one class, no one professor, no one lecture can resolve. Maybe they’re trying to stay abreast of problems for which there just doesn’t seem to be a clear object to focus on. What comes quickest to mind are ecological problems, fiduciary problems, social problems—predicaments such as the radicalization of very nice citizens who somehow take up arms against other nice people. But whatever you’re thinking about, you know that there are problems that don’t offer quick, clear solutions accessible to rationally selective attention.
There’s just nothing you can point to and say, Just look at that thing right there, concentrate on it long enough, and just about everything will be better.
So if selective attention isn’t all we need, what other sorts of attention might be useful. Put differently, what other sorts of attention might characterize the awareness of a someone texting in class.
This afternoon, Dr. Kuecker and Dr. Brodnax got me thinking about a different kind of attention. When I’m with these two guys, I can’t speak for more than forty-five seconds without laughing. These two professors ought to do an interim on banter. Maybe if they did so, they’d get at this idea that sometimes we joke around seriously. Sometimes we banter not in order to distract ourselves, but in order to pay attention. Sometimes we speak in order to listen. We are using language to flare out our awareness for what we cannot yet specify.
- It’s not attention that’s focused on securing the self; in fact, it’s attention that is essentially social and collaborative.
- It’s not an attention that’s rationally driven; it’s cued by emotions like humor and grief and anger and hope.
- It’s not an attention that’s selective; it’s more haptic, ambient, indirect.
This mode of awareness works not like a camera that’s zooming in, but rather like your eyes do when you deliberately try to keep something in your peripheral vision. As Dean Huyser said to me the other day, it’s a different way of persisting. A different way of staying with a tough predicament. You gentle your gaze; you keep something in your sideways view. You increase the surface area of your engrossment, feeling around, waiting around, for the vibration that indicates you’re on to something. Something worth noting even before you can name it.
I hope you respond to this post with arguments about the ethics of texting in class. But I also hope you also notice that around these here parts, we practice a very special sort of attention, in and out of the classroom, called scholarship. We are a community committed to engrossment in both the selective and the heuristic senses. It feels good to say that our Christian confession summons us to that hopeful, redemptive, and communal engrossment that is not self-securing so much as it is self-giving.