Monday, February 22, 2010


It has become all the fashion on the productivity blogs to bash multi-tasking, while at the same time, on the education blogs, self-consciously "progressive" types are bashing hidebound *resistance* to multi-tasking.. I think, however, that such trendy bashing proceeds from somewhat different critiques. On the productivity blogs, the critique is that multi-tasking, which is conventionally understood as "doing two or more things at the same time" (editing, talking on the telephone, monitoring social-networking feeds, etc, etc), actually erodes productivity--that the illusion is believing that either one of the tasks being performed simultaneously "to save time" is being executed as well as either could be executed sequentially.

For the edu-bloggers, the contrary argument--in terms of their contrasted clientele of students--is that 21st century youth (and in this I'm including anybody anywhere in any formalized educational system, age 5 to around age 26) spend nearly all of their waking hours multi-tasking anyway (cell phone, facebook updates, text messaging all occurring simultaneously with, oh, I don't know, operating an automobile, "studying" for a test, "taking notes" in a lecture) that it's artificial, probably uncomfortable, and certainly counter-productive to insist that they suddenly switch gears entirely and become one-pointed in their attention during the tasks that we think should be accomplished by mono-tasking.

Historically, in the K-12 world, as I understand it educators have finessed this by diagramming the durations of attention of which children are capable at various stages of cognitive development: 90 seconds at age 6, two-and-a-half minutes at age 10, and so on (the likely inaccuracy of my time estimates here revealing my embarrassing unfamiliarity with educational technique). This strikes me as an OK/not-bad solution to the existing situation--but not one that is really applicable for a college-age clientele who are supposed to be learning how to expand and focus their concentration, in terms of both topics and durations.

But I don't think the edubloggers quite have hold of the right of the stick either. There's an old saying back from all those years ago in the 1970s, "If you studied stoned, you better take the exam stoned." (Parenthetically, I can still say that, four decades later, I still see undergrad music kids operating from the same numb-skulled presumption--trumpet players never change) I don't hold with trendy parallel current view about multi-tasking's suitability. I think contemporary college students don't know how to concentrate and that part of our job is to teach them how.

On the other hand, people do sometimes comment on the work-load I carry, and/or the degree to which I can "multi-task," thinking of it as revealing higher-than-normative productivity. I don't happen to believe that--I'm crucially aware of what I could be producing and of the colossal degree to which I'm constantly falling short--but that repeated assertion has made me think about what it might be they think they're seeing. And I don't think it's multi-tasking; there's something else going on here.

What I think is being observed is something I learned years ago, as a survival skill, somewhere in the twelve years we were in graduate school, or maybe even before that when I went back to finish the aborted undergrad degree, or maybe even before that, when I was working as a bookstore night-manager, or restaurant cook, or framing carpenter. I learned that I was never going to have the number of hours, or the extended blocks of time, that would let me practice uninterruptedly as long as I wanted or in open-ended ways.

When I was carpentering, I learned to get up at 4:30am and practice until I had to be at work at 7:30, because trying to practice chromatic approaches after a full day of framing houses, and a shower, was a recipe for falling asleep.

When I was cooking, I'd work double-shifts three days a week (14 hour days: 9am-11pm), so that more days were open for practicing. I'd get out of the restaurant at 11 and walk three miles home across town, trying to unwind enough so that I could sleep readily and get up early.

At the bookstore, I'd work 7-midnight, take a last train from Cambridge's Harvard Square, sprint for the last bus at Government Center in Lynn, and hope that bus in turn made a connection that would take me all the way up to my home town on the North Shore so I could walk only a couple of blocks to my friend Larry's house--if I didn't make that last connection, I'd walk 5 miles there. And get up early to practice.

Night-managing the guitar studio, I'd get up and get to the studio two or three hours before opening time, so I could have the place to myself, away from distractions or noisy apartment neighbors, and better concentrate on the practicing. I'd sit behind the desk once we opened up and play scales and patterns on the house acoustic guitars for hours upon end, driving everybody in the waiting room crazy, when Larry & I weren't playing Irish tunes on fiddle and mandolin and driving them crazier.

I taught myself to sight-read on the Brookline Green Line train heading to the Studio every morning and, late night, riding home at night. I still remember the workbook: an early edition of Clough's Chords, Keys, Scales, Intervals, and Triads.

When I went back to school, I'd read the 4th edition Grout Music History textbook on the Red Line to Dorchester, when I wasn't sitting there, book closed, practice piano fingerings (Stravinsky's Les Cinqs Doigts and Bartok's Mikrokosmos) on its spine.

One of the most amazing guitarists I've ever heard, Wisconsin's Jack Grassel, said to me, "if you work at home, keep the guitar out, on a stand, so if there's only a few minutes free, you don't have to waste time pulling it out of the case."

I'd sit there in the late-night Wednesday or sign-on Sunday shifts at the Bloomington public radio station, my throat raw and voice shot from screaming over the 9-piece horn band the night before, the mic shut off, and play Dave Baker's 101 Bebop Licks and 33 common-practice bebop heads in 22-minute increments while the LP's of Bruckner and Brahms spooled through their sides. I'd sit at the station's sole MS DOS desktop, which ran the AP ticker and was embedded in a wall of World War II surplus sound-gear about 5 feet off the ground, so I had to use a high stool, and transcribe classroom lecture notes onto floppy discs, with the on-air feed turned up loud so I could hear it.

I learned to carry along a primitive walkman everywhere, so I could block out ambient noise wherever I was. Studying for my doctoral exit exams, I had three huge 5-inch loose-leaf binders, one for each major topic area (Baroque, American, 20th century), so huge they wouldn't fit in a knapsack, so I strapped them all together with a martial-arts belt, and carried them everywhere.

Nowadays, I stand or fall on the hour-by-hour scheduling of the Outlook planner. I tell students asking at the end of class for a meeting time to please send me an email, because I can only guarantee that the time is available (and will be reserved) if I'm sitting there with the Outlook planner open.

I block out the week literally hour-by-hour, always making sure, as I've blogged before, that there's not only prep-time for each class or meeting, but also followup-time. As I've said, nowadays I'll write a followup note (kind of "minutes or "action-items") for every meeting: student, faculty, survey, or seminar class. It means that almost every hour of the week is locked-in, and for some people would "feel" terribly rigid, but for me it's actually liberating. Because I can be reasonably confident that there will be time to do everything that needs to be done within the constraints of the timetable on which they need to be done. But it has to happen right then, not later, and not optionally--it has to be right then.

And it can all go to hell, of course, if the inevitable unpredicted interruptions overwhelm the small chunks of time in the schedule allocated for them. These days, with a parent failing, also by the hour, it's particularly difficult to stay focused.

But it's particularly important, now, in the job I've held these past 10 years. Because now, the blocked-out hours and half-hours and quarter-hours are not only essential to getting my own work done, but absolutely essential to the viable progress of my students--especially graduate students--in their own life-plans. I spent 12 years in graduate school and I do have some grasp of how overwhelming every single hurdle can seem. What that means is that they have to believe that, meeting by meeting and semester-by-semester, I am totally locked-in, for that particular chunk of time together, on helping them every way I can, right there and right then.

It matters that I've learned, over the past 30 years, to single-task--to apply one-pointed attention--in the pursuit of my own long-term goals. It's even more important, now, that I apply that attention to the long-term goals and well-being of my students.

1 comment:

Scott said...

"I think contemporary college students don't know how to concentrate and that part of our job is to teach them how."

Passed my written quals. Put at least one knotch on your belt.