This week, I was traveling and had the opportunity to read the same book for 3 hours in a row with minimal interruption. It felt so good, and the experience made me realize that this kind of reading has been missing from my life for quite a while. In fact, I don't think I've done any one thing (except sleep and sit in faculty meetings) for 3 hours straight in a really, really long time.
Over the summer, the July issue of The Atlantic cover story was titled Is Google Making Us Stoopid? The article wasn't really about Google so much as the fact that reading is changing in ways that need to be examined. Being a huge fan of literacy, I've said often that the only part of the phrase "21st Century Literacy" that matters is, in fact, literacy. Reading this article helped me realize that I'm only partly right. The world is more text dependent than ever before and being illiterate is clearly a terrible handicap.
One of the less obvious risks of reading electronic text and watching electronically distributed video is the deterioration of attention. I know that I'm not reading nearly as many books as I used to, particularly non-fiction. I like to think that I'm learning what I need to know via the web, Nings, blogs, etc. But I suspect that is not entirely true. I've had trouble reading two non-fiction books this summer that really interest me: Working With Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goldman and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al. Neither is particularly difficult and I've enjoyed the 2/3rds of both that I've read so far. I suspect that so much work online has made it hard for me to engage in the deep reading of these that I would have done in years past. In the past, I also wouldn't have started one without finishing the other.
The attention issue translates to video as well. I don't even attempt to watch mini-series anymore. I heard great things about Planet Earth when it was on, but didn't even attempt it. I've watched the first half of Michael Wesch's An anthropological introduction to YouTube which is brilliant and fascinating. And, an hour long. I've got to get to the second half!
The 20 minute TED talks seem to be right at my maximum. I tried a new trick today though--they are downloadable, so I put 2 on my iPod and watched them at the gym on the elliptical. I have high hopes for taking myself through quite a few of the talks at the gym.
So, the ability to focus and learn new material in more than a 20 minute spurt is a problem for me. I hope that my recognition of the issue will, along with some thought, help me learn to manage myself and my attention a little better. What about students in school now though? How will they learn the satisfaction that is "flow?" They certainly will have difficulty learning about it in 45 minute class periods.
Bemoaning the issue or making silly stands like "you may not use Wikipedia as a resource for this project" isn't going to help students. I'm just not sure what will.