I sat at the back of one of plenary presentations yesterday at the MEA conference. It’s rare that I get to be behind students instead of in front of them. I am pretty used to the idea of students checking email during a lecture. It doesn’t bother me as much as it does some people. One of the students directly in front of me during the lecture was doodling, and his friend was first designing a Flash project, and then moved on to playing Everquest. Now, some might think that these more interactive processes would have sapped all of her attention, and thus it was a “bad thing” to do during a lecture.
I try to make my own lectures interesting and entertaining. And of course, I love the front two rows of my classes (I think everyone does), because they look ready to jump into the conversation, and often they do. But I am an extreme doodler. I never took great notes, but I have always doodled to keep myself from going nuts. So as I looked at this pair in front of me, I wondered whether the doodler or the gamer was more “distracted.”
And yes, you’ve probably at this point noted that I myself did not have my full attention on the speaker. His talk, by the way, was interesting–less, in my case, for the thesis, and more for the discussion, if that makes sense. He was talking about the role of rules as a way of organizing understanding vs. rules dictating behavior, and had much to say on the general topic of mind and society. And I did scribble some notes from his talk and from the questions afterwards. At the same time, I was watching the two students in front of me. I was also watching the tag-team ASL interpretters, who were far more animated (as the language encourages) than the speaker himself. I don’t know any ASL, and so it felt a bit like an interpretive dance, which was kind of interesting. At the same time, I was also outlining a paper I am putting together later this week. This feels a little bit like working in the middle of Times Square, only instead of ads, there are ideas. (Yes, ads can also be ideas, but so rarely are.)
There are times when I enjoy the quiet of my office and the one-on-one bond with my word processing program, and I do some of my most productive work in such conditions. But I do my best thinking in an environment in which there are a lot of novel ideas floating around, waiting to be snatched out of the air. I have a feeling that a lot of people treat a conference as a book, with a number of chapters worth working through. For me at least, it’s a lot more like walking through a crowded street, bumping into people I know or don’t know, ideas familiar and strange, and new ways of structuring the world.