On boredom.

27 10 2013

I served as a panelist for a webinar last week.  It won’t be available until next month (and it appears that you can sign up here if you are inclined to watch me play talking head for an hour), but I’ll describe the highlight right now:  I came very close to jumping out of my seat, reaching my arms through the Internet and strangling a guy from Google on my panel.  You see, he had just made the argument that lectures are inherently boring and if students are checking Facebook on their smart phones during classes then it’s obviously the professor’s fault.  He then suggested that more technology in the classroom can fix that problem.  This led me into a long rant about reading and writing skills and the importance of learning patience which I now kind of regret for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the guy from Google seemed like a perfectly nice person right up until the point that he made that argument.

What I should have said was this:  “Yes, some professors are boring.  Other professors put a great effort into making their lectures as entertaining as humanly possible.  I hope I fall into the later category as I’ve changed the way that I lecture a lot since I first started teaching.  The most important change is that I no longer read anything.  I keep my eyes on my audience at all times and address them directly, using only the pictures on my PowerPoint presentations as reminder of what I want to talk about.  This makes it easier for me to ask questions or take questions during class or do whatever I can to make lectures a less passive experience.

Undoubtedly, some students still find this boring, but life often requires us to sit through things that we don’t enjoy.  I, for one, feel the exact same way they do at just about every academic meeting that I am ever required to attend, but as going to these  meetings is part of my job I have learned to grin and bear it.  While certainly we shouldn’t deliberately set out to bore our students, there are some things about higher education that a majority of them will not enjoy.  To suggest that they should somehow get a vote in what higher education should be is to turn its very purpose on its head.  We might as well just sell degrees online for a fixed price whether students show up to class or not because the effect will be just the same.”

Right after that conversation, I read Evgeny Morozov’s piece on boredom in last week’s New Yorker (subs. req.).  While he seldom writes explicitly about higher education, so much of what he does write applies perfectly to higher education that it’s no wonder that I’ve become such a huge fan.  Take this, for example:

“Information overload can bore us as easily as information under load.  But this form of boredom, mediated boredom, doesn’t provide time to think; it just produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.”

This would explain the absolute inability of so many students to to stop checking their phones in even the most interesting classes.  If everything new has become boring despite its newness, then it would be difficult to distinguish between the ephemeral information coming at them via phone and the timeless truths that a good professor may be teaching in whatever discipline they happen to be imparting to them.  More importantly, you can filter what information that comes to you via Facebook in all sorts of ways, but in class most professors only let you learn one way:  theirs.  If you never give yourself time to think or reflect about yourself, then you’re certainly going to resent the fact that your professor is demanding that you reflect on the experiences of other people (be they writers, historical figures, scientists or whomever) who you don’t even know and could care less about in the first place.

Why don’t they care more?  Because students, like so many people in general, have enough trouble managing their own Information Age existences.  Here’s Morozov again:

“The fire hose of social media tricks us into thinking that, for a fleeting moment, we can play God and conquer every link that is dumped upon us; it gives us that mad utopian hope that, with proper training, we can emerge victorious in the war on information overload.”

Listening to the professor in class not only distracts students from engaging in the exciting war that they can wage on their phones anytime, anywhere, it has the unfortunate side effect of giving them yet more information that they have to process.  Of course, we can do what the guy from Google wants and turn all of our classes into social media or social media-like experiences.  I can certainly see why that could be useful in a limited number of disciplines (take media studies, for example), but do we really want to throw out the baby with bathwater?

As Mazel likes to point out in his many comments on this blog, books are really useful teaching tools which have been a very useful for inquisitive people everywhere for hundreds of years now.  Even if the media by which written information is delivered changes over time, reading is a skill that will remain essential for thinking people for hundreds if not thousands of years into the future.  Turning every aspect of college into a consumer-oriented, technologically-enabled, app-driven endeavor in order to avoid a systemic boredom that no one professor could possibly cure on their own won’t do the college students of tomorrow any favors.  More likely it will just make it harder for graduates to last in jobs that won’t cater to their every whim or to get jobs that involve any kind of thinking or ability to act independently in the first place.

But why should anybody listen to me? I don’t design apps and I don’t know how to code. I just teach for a living.


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4 responses

27 10 2013
RAB

Bravo.
Listening is a learned skill that is driven by a desire to hear. The less often we challenge students to acquire this skill, especially by offering them messages they already want to hear, the less likely they will be to develop it on their own. I marvel at the evident ability centuries ago of church-goers to listen to, and perhaps even understand, one of the lengthy sermons of John Donne or his colleagues. Perhaps the desire to avoid damnation was sufficient impetus. With modern grade inflation, we don’t have damnation to wield–we don’t even have disappointment.
I’m very interested in the information fire-hose perception, too. Is managing this overload a factor in their choices of what to try to listen to and what to tune out with the “boring” excuse?

28 10 2013
Historiann

Our grandmothers were right: only boring people complain of boredom. Also: did anyone interested in rescuing college students from boredom actually go to college themselves? If they have degrees, then they’d know that college is a lot like the rest of life: sometimes boring, sometimes inspiring, sometimes silly, sometimes interesting. The idea that adults must now rescue young people from their own boredom is a helicopter-parent fantasy from hell.

Brilliant work, Jonathan. I was thinking about writing about that Morozov article myself, but now I don’t have to! You said everything I would have said about it, and more because of your experience with the Google man. Of course, someone from the tech field will believe that more technology is the cure for our students’ addiction to technology. Digital technology can never be the problem, only the next solution.

28 10 2013
dpedeva

Your blog entry resonated well with fellow instructors. Now, let’s hope that students would also see our perspective and embrace it.

28 10 2013
Kate

Well, OK, but I’m a bit wary of the idea that we know for sure what other people are doing around us, and why. I find the science on mind-wandering quite heartening, as it suggests that part of the mental time-out behaviour that we all naturally engage in is a healthy practice. So when I feel bored (as I often do) in meetings, sometimes it’s just because my head is full. I’m just as likely to surf Twitter for a bit as to look at photographs, and what I’m doing is resting.

I’ve talked a lot to students about their mental time-out strategies in one hour or 90 minute lectures, as I’m not sure it’s as simple as either addiction or failure to listen. Nor do I think it’s our job to entertain anyone to stop this essentially healthy thing happening. My hunch is that it’s just plain courtesy to enable listeners to reconnect when they want to — that’s what images in presentations do for me, as visual cues. I wander out, and wander back, and oh look, there’s that image.

The skill and art of managing our own listening practices: how openly do we demonstrate that we value this skill (or even that we have it ourselves?) Just curious.

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