Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wrapping up the 2018 Speaking Season

I write from the hotel bar of a Marriott in Salt Lake City, where I am unwinding after completing my last speaking engagement of the 2018 calendar year. Since the publication of Small Teaching in 2016, I have been a bit of a road warrior, fielding more than 100 speaking requests per year, mostly from colleges and universities in the United States and Canada--but occasionally from places much farther flung from my home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Of course I can only accept a fraction of those requests, as I still have a full-time job teaching and directing the D'Amour Center for Teaching Excellence on campus. But I am very grateful to all who have invited me to speak to their faculty, whether I was able to make it or not.
Jillian and Lucie on "The Fault in Our Stars" bench in
Amsterdam.This was really difficult to find,
but we persisted.

No doubt the highlight of the speaking year was the three-week stint I spent in April at Central European University in Budapest, where I led a few small seminars and taught a class for graduate students. On the weekends I had the opportunity to travel around Europe a bit, and my spouse and three younger children were able to join me for the last week or so of the trip. I spent a weekend in Vienna on my own, and as a family we traveled to Amsterdam and Lucerne. Europe, I will never tire of you. I'll come back anytime.

I took multiple trips to Canada, presenting on both Cheating Lessons and Small Teaching. My Canadian hosts were uniformly gracious and friendly, and participants at lectures and workshops were all incredibly supportive and engaged in the events which I led. As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone's nice in Canada.

Anne overlooking Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.
How lucky am I to have married this person?
I traveled to many lovely spots across the United States, some of which enabled me to work in visits with my far-flung family. Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University gave me the opportunity to return to my hometown of Cleveland and spend time with my brother. At Villanova University I gave the first presentation of my current research and visited with my daughter, a junior there. My time at CalTech enabled me to squeeze in a dinner with my daughter who is in graduate school at USC. Talks at the University of Chicago and Benedictine University meant quality time with my sister (and my adorable nephew) in Chicago.

I love travel and I enjoy speaking, although they both have their down sides. Nothing energizes me like a plane lifting into the sky, a new destination waiting at the other end of the trip, or like standing in front of a few hundred people with nothing but a microphone in front of you and your work behind you. But traveling and speaking also mean endless hours standing in airport security lines, lonely nights watching Netflix on my laptop in hotel rooms, and lots of meals eaten with folks whose faces and stories I won't be able to remember a year later.

Flagstaff. AZ, home of Northern
Arizona University.
The travel also can make it difficult to meet writing deadlines, a major one of which approaches in just eleven short months. Travel definitely stimulates my brain--I wrote for a good two hours on the flight from Boston to Salt Lake City on Thursday--as it breaks me from my routines and gives me new ways to think about old and persistent problems. But getting stimulating ideas really represents a small part of the writing process; most of it involves sitting down and banging out the words, slowly and deliberately, over long stretches of time.

2019 will see my time on the road much reduced. I have some engagements booked for the spring semester, and as usual I'll be at Ken Bain's Best Teachers Summer Institute. But in the fall--in addition to teaching and administrating as usual--I'm going to be hunkered down and writing Teaching Distracted Minds, working furiously to meet a November 2019 deadline. I'll still look for a few opportunities to present the ideas from the new book and see how people respond, but will prefer local and very limited engagements. It will be a very different fall from the one I've had this year, but it will be good. As I approach my 50th birthday, I'm glad to report that the writing fire still burns hot.

Keep an eye out here for progress updates, and have a great break.

P.S. You can keep up with my travels on Instagram at jimlang7, where I (very irregularly) post photos from my trips.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

New Book Coming: Teaching Distracted Minds

The first time that my syllabus mentioned anything about the use of technology in class was in the spring of 2008, when I wrote the following policy into my Argument and Persuasion course:
  • PUT AWAY AND TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES!  If your phone rings or vibrates in class, or I see you checking it or texting, you will be absent for that day.
LOOK AT ALL THOSE CAPS AND EVEN AN EXCLAMATION POINT! I WAS REALLY CONCERNED ABOUT THIS! I REALLY DIDN'T WANT STUDENTS TO USE THEIR CELL PHONES!

This policy likely arose from some student who was texting during in class the previous semester, so you can trace back my concern with this issue at least ten years, and probably longer. Students on my campus have been slower than those on other campuses to bring their laptops into class, so at that time cell phone were the only in-class technology that concerned me. 

Ten years later, both the concern and the policy seem almost quaint. I haven't heard a cell phone ring in class for at least a few years now, and I no longer have a strict attendance policy. We do enough low-stakes writing exercises or other activities in class that students who miss class will gradually bleed away so many points that it makes it difficult for them to pass.

The vexing question of how to address student use of technology in class has become an increasingly fascinating one for me, though. I see faculty all over the spectrum on their policies about the use of technology in class, read arguments in academic publications about whether we should ban phones and laptops from class (and I've written some of those arguments myself), and pored through lots of research about the use of technology in class and how it impacts student learning.
The coffee shop where I like to work, with it's many distractions.

Almost all of that research connects to the larger cultural debates we have been having about attention and distraction. Are our cell phones destroying our ability to pay attention? Are students these days incapable of sitting down and focusing on difficult texts, because they are so used to scrolling continuously through their phones? Has the advent of our latest technologies changed the human brain? Do we need to re-think our education systems for our tech-saturated world? Or should we focus instead on teaching students to focus their minds, using techniques like mindfulness?

A few years ago I began really thinking about this question in earnest, exploring the research on attention and distraction, and reading what both learning theorists and working teachers had to say about these issues, about their students, and about their policies. What I found, especially in the literature of attention and distraction, was how fundamental this question was to so many aspects of our lives. Neuroscientists, for example, debate about the extent to which our attention systems form our very consciousness. Philosophers consider what it means to think with and without attention. Psychologists point out that attention to one thing means blindness to many others. And teachers wonder whether, without attention, we can learn anything at all.

I always know that I've hit about a good book topic when I can't stop wondering about a question. And a good two years after I began thinking about these issues in depth, I'm still curious and wondering. That curiosity has led me into historical and philosophical texts which demonstrate that we have been concerned about distraction for a good two millennia now. It has led me into the work of neuroscientists who explain why our minds are subject to distraction, and how that might have benefited our early brains. It has led me to the work of psychologists who describe creative thinking in terms that sound an awful lot like distracted thinking.   

All of this is prelude to say that I'm pleased to announce that my next book, Teaching Distracted Minds, will be published by Basic Books in 2020. (I buried the lede for this blog post way down here at the end, just to see if you were paying attention.)  I'm still on the research journey, but the ideas that will form the core arguments of the book are in place, and I hope I will be able to offer readers some new historical and scientific perspectives, some creative solutions for the problems that educators at all levels are having with distracted students in class, and some new ideas for how careful thinking about attention and distraction can improve the education we provide for students, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

I'm very grateful to my agent and to the editors at Basic Books for helping to make this project come to life.  I was fortunate enough to have multiple presses interested in the book, and Basic made a very convincing case for their ability to bring the book to the widest audience possible. I can't wait to get writing, and to get the book in your hands as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, to all my fellow teachers out there, have a great start to the new academic year.