Mindful of Distraction

Distractions abound in our technology-infused world. Whether they are supplied by our cell phones, laptop screens, or the pervasive presence of TV screens, it’s clear that the speed of modern technology has had an effect on our neurological perception. Regardless of any philosophical argument of whether this change should be embraced or resisted, its existence is undeniable. Part of what makes these distractions so challenging is that the technology is so ubiquitous that their presence is no longer anomalous. Technology, the connectivity it affords, and the distractions it enables is a normal part of life in the world today.

Successfully navigating this stimulation overload requires mindfulness. As Sharon Salzberg states in her article Three Simple Ways to Pay Attention, “mindfulness does not depend on what is happening, but is about how we relate to what is happening.” I like this description as it pertains to the distracting nature of technology because it doesn’t impart a value onto the psychological shift in how we perceive the world. It only asks that we acknowledge and accept that such a shift is taking place.

It’s especially important to incorporate this mindfulness into our pedagogy in the classroom. Doing so helps cultivate a learning environment that is aligned with the realities of the non-academic world. Enforcing policies that limit the use of technology in the classroom can be effective towards mitigating distraction, but avoiding this challenge offers little to students as far as methods of managing the distractions they encounter in other facets of their lives. A lot of what made my favorite teachers so impactful was that the lessons they taught had applications that transcended any particular field of knowledge. I believe that as a teacher in the current technological climate, I have an opportunity to instill a mindfulness in my students regarding their interaction with technology and its constant tug on their attention.

Ideological cogitations aside, I’ve found it challenging to tackle these distractions in the classroom and make no claims towards knowledge of the best practice. I don’t think prohibiting technology is the most forward-thinking policy though, since the technology is unlikely to disappear. There are also many benefits to working with technology. Clive Thompson’s account of human/computer chess teams was illuminating and exciting. We work with computers in almost every aspect of the class I currently teach. They enable us to record and edit videos and animations, manipulate digital imagery, model virtual worlds, develop custom software, program electronics, create websites, and a multitude of other things – all of which is pretty amazing given the number of times I died of cholera on the Oregon Trail in elementary school.

Yet they are also undeniably agents of distraction. Being mindful of this requires awareness and intention. I think it deserves more than just a bullet point on the course syllabus and would be more effective as a discussion that gets revisited regularly throughout the semester. Developing mindfulness towards distraction enables students to be self-aware. In turn, this awareness provides autonomy over whether or not to engage with a distraction. The trick, which I’m sure I’ll always be revising alongside my experience, is to inspire students to actively make the choice to tune out distractions for themselves.

Finding the Right Balance

My introduction to teaching feels analogous to the account given by Sarah Deel in her article Finding My Teaching Voice. Though I did lobby for my own opportunity to teach a class, the feeling of being underprepared after my ostensible toss into the fire was not unalike. Similar to her, I come from a small liberal arts college that prioritized teaching over research and publication. I too teach a class I never took as an undergrad. And though it is not substantively dissimilar from my own work and artistic practice generally-speaking, the particular minutia of the syllabus are not always skills and wedges of knowledge that I would ascribe to myself a level of mastery from which to confidently teach.

I often spend a lot of time before class researching whatever it is that we will be talking about that day. Like Sarah, having access to the details helps me to feel more confident as a teacher. I don’t expect to have answers to all of the questions that my students ask, but by preparing I feel more capable of steering them in a useful direction.

After reading the articles for this week, I realize that the confidence I gain from increasing my own knowledge is likely a result of my understanding of what it means to be a “teacher.” By increasing my knowledge, I feel better able spout information and bestow understanding, just as many of my own teachers had done. My definition of “teacher” comes from the conditioning I received from my own experiences in school. However, as Professor Fowler notes in her Authentic Teaching Self outline, a “teacher” is better understood as a guide or a facilitator, not a knowledge-dispenser.

What kind of teacher am I? One who is serious about figuring that out. I value preparation and knowledge. It’s important to me to be ready when class starts and to have the appropriate balance of structure and flexibility to the lesson so that I don’t waste my students’ time. Similarly, I want to know enough about what I teach to constructively engage students’ questions. I don’t expect to know all the answers, but I expect to be useful in facilitating new discoveries and resolving obstacles.

Accomplishing those things mostly comes down to a time commitment, which I can control. Truly facilitating learning in the classroom is a more challenging task. I want to be aware of the proficiencies, deficiencies, and curiosities of my students, and improve our learning experience accordingly. It’s vital that I not only have such an awareness of the class as a whole, but also of each student as an individual. Approaching students as individuals legitimizes their position as a scholar in the field as well as provides tangibility to my relationship with them as a teacher. Furthermore, as a teacher in the arts, working with students individually helps generate a more diverse creative output. If my students create projects that all look the same, the culpability, at least in part, lies with me.

None of these ideals amount to much though if I don’t reconcile them against being myself. My experiences thus far with teaching have shown me that it’s much less stressful and exhausting if I don’t try to be a more perfect version of myself at the same time. It’s important to practice what I believe makes a good teacher, but it’s equally important to be myself. If teaching was only about knowledge and preparation it wouldn’t interest me, and there likely wouldn’t be classes such as this one. That tells me that I have something to offer that’s completely distinct from any knowledge I possess, and also inextricably bound to my unique self. Soon, I hope to be able to draw my confidence from that too.

Un-expecting the Expected

This semester, I’m teaching a class called Principles of New Media. It’s part of a cluster of three courses prescribed to all incoming freshmen who wish to pursue a major within the school of visual arts. One of the goals of PONM is to establish a baseline proficiency in several computer programs that are used extensively in upper level art and design courses.

As technologies are apt to do, these programs are in a constant state of mutability. From year to year, changes are implemented to update their functionality and interface in pursuit of optimization. This creates a learning environment analogous to the description provided by Thomas and Seely Brown in Chapter 3 of A New Culture of Learning. As an educator, it’s challenging to introduce students to these tools knowing that their imminent restructuring is liable to render the specifics of my lessons obsolete. To best prepare my students to use this software in the future, I must be mindful in how I teach them in the present. It requires an approach that acknowledges the fluid nature of digital tools. Teaching with this in mind de-emphasizes the need to master a specific tool and places more importance on cultivating students’ ability to determine what it is they want to do. For example, rather than motivating an assignment through mastery of the specific functionality of a program, instead prioritize the students’ ability to think through the goals of their project, identify the skills and tools they will need to realize those goals, and use my lessons help them feel comfortable working with technology. Importantly, that comfortability must transcend the specifics of any particular tool or method that I demonstrate in the classroom. The reading by Langer showed how something as simple as the language I use to describe and explain these tools can have this effect. Using mindful language can open the door to finding creative solutions and facilitate students’ ability to adapt to changing technologies. Going forward, their ability to do that is much more important to their success than any particular mastery they could gain from my class.

Another challenge centers around expectation – specifically my expectations as a teacher. There is implicit bias in the programs that we use on computers and other devices, built in to their functionality and interface by the people that created them (despite whatever efforts may have been made otherwise). Similarly, as a person who is (in theory) familiar with the capabilities these tools, when I assign a project that requires the use of a particular software, I inherently hold an expectation for what the result of that assignment will be. Undoubtedly, this informs the way I teach, regardless of whether I consciously acknowledge this preconception or not. So, how do we as teachers disengage from our expectations in a way that is still dutiful to our obligation to share our knowledge without impinging on our students’ creativity? Once more, I think the article by Langer is useful in addressing this question. Being mindful of how I teach digital tools directly affects how creative students are when they use them. Teaching students how to use tools in a mindless manner will lead to work that meets expectations but will never generate work that is unexpected.

In some fields, expected results may be a good thing, but in art, the opposite is generally true. Art that shows us something we don’t expect tends to hold our attention longer. It changes our perspective by subverting something familiar and providing it with new context. I believe that this is more important than mastery of any particular skill or technique and imparting this idea to my students likely begins with how I approach my lessons.

Maintaining Humanity in a Digital World

I received my undergraduate degree from Davidson College, which is a small liberal arts school outside of Charlotte, NC. While it’s possibly most known for producing basketball phenom Stephen Curry (too bad Virginia Tech!), it prides itself on a low student-faculty ratio, intimate class sizes, and rigorous academics. The priority placed on teaching there fit very well with my own ideals for what learning should be. Coming to Virginia Tech, a full-blown R1 research institution, required a cultural adjustment. Gardner Campbell’s article resonates with the way I felt during my first year here. Interestingly, my experiences in the classroom and the relationships I have with my professors is not dissimilar from those that I had in undergrad (I’m in a pretty small program), but I definitely feel the effects of existing in an academic world dictated by objectives, outcomes, and metrics when I happen to cross paths with the multi-faceted, many-cogged machine that is the university-at-large. Some of these effects I feel indirectly. I have friends who’ve been in classes of over 300 students, taught in gargantuan lecture halls, featuring a half-committed professor rehashing the same lecture from a decade earlier. Michael Wesch picks apart the effectiveness of this dogmatic approach to education in his TED talk video we watched on Wednesday. Fortunately, none of my classes are like that, and I am only able to imagine how insignificant it must feel to be a student in that situation. However, there are other ways in which I feel these effects very directly, the most superficial being funding. I’ll be the first to admit that the art department isn’t the bread-winner at Virginia Tech. We are a small group of small fishes in a big Duck Pond. However, just like any department, we need money and resources to fund graduate students, purchase new equipment, and secure studio spaces. But there isn’t much of that for the arts at an institution that prioritizes measurable research, especially one funded by the government (and super especially at this particular moment in time). Often, we will collaborate on research projects with other departments in engineering or the sciences in an attempt to appropriately reclassify ourselves to be eligible for the funding that’s available. And while such cross-disciplinary team-ups are excellent opportunities and undoubtedly work towards a more networked learning environment, too often the requisite reclassification paints us more as designers than artists (and I will vehemently and passionately argue the distinction). Kuh’s “comprehensive approach” to student education is most at-risk from a system predicated on career outcomes. I agree with Kuh and Campbell that readjusting our emphasis to be about student learning and inquiry is paramount to a true education. There are certain skills such as feeling comfortable talking to people, being aware of the needs of others, and being an active listener that may not be pertinent to the knowledge pool of a field of study, but are absolutely critical as a professional. Similarly, ingesting information to spit back up on a test does little towards helping students identify and solve problems they encounter. These “human” skills are difficult to justify when numbers serve as the reason for doing, especially so when many forms of both work and leisure take place behind the glow of a computer screen. Finding ways to utilize and develop them in (or alongside) the classroom is one of the biggest challenges we face as educators today.