So I’m giving a lecture about rhyme scheme today near the beginning of Poetry Class and I suddenly realize that virtually every student in the room is assembling their portfolios (to turn in at the end of class) while I’m speaking: binders are CLACKing, papers are shuffling, pages are riffling. I literally hear myself raising my voice to compensate, and then loose my cool. “What are you people DOING?” I cry out, baffled. I say a few vaguely threatening things and complain about their manners. Later I vent to a colleague, and she tells me “It’s this generation. They’re good at multitasking.”
Millenials again. I agree that today’s college students are whiz kids at IMing while they talk to one another. And I agree that they might be able to drive a car and work a cell phone at the same time. Corporations see “multi-tasking” as the skill of a productive worker. But I see it as an inability to concentrate for an extended period of time. Part of my job as an English prof — a scholar of reading — is to teach concentration skills. I believe multitasking might actually have negative consequences we haven’t considered, most of all on learning. And studies back me up.
- Multitasking can lead to catastrophe. Obviously, air traffic controllers and automobile drivers can cause death. The brain can’t keep up with two things at once. Research at U Michigan’s Brain and Cognition Lab examine how “juggling is not always easy, and in many cases can lead to greater inefficiency.”
- CNN reported in 1991 that Multitasking is actually counter-productive. Going from task to task generates little gaps of “switch time” that often slow down work performance and decrease productivity.
- Multitasking carries health risks, according to studies by the FAA and U Michigan. Obviously, you can crash your car if you’re not paying attention by talking on a cell phone and changing a CD at the same time. Safety is one thing. Health is another: multitasking puts extra stress on the body, which incrementally generates exhaustion, mental burnout, anxiety and depression. There is no difference between multitasking for pleasure (playing a computer game while eating ice creaam) or for work (typing a memo while reading a tech manual).
- Multitasking decreases brain activity. In other words, learning suffers. Edward Willet cites research that claims that when test subjects listen to sentences while rotating an object, the brain activity generated by listening to sentences decreased by 53 percent. HALF! Literally, half of what I’m telling my students goes in one ear and out the other if they’re doodling on a PDA or organizing their binders.
- Multitasking can be antithetical to liberal arts education. Mark Wollf, in a Humanities discussion list, put it best:
I think the multitasking afforded by technology is antithetical to the
kind of education we promote in American liberal arts colleges. With
multitasking you do not think so much as react to stimuli. To think
critically in the liberal arts tradition, you have to focus on ideas and
dwell on them. You do not process.
Wollf’s concern is that adding technology to the classroom can render concentration obsolete. I’m not so sure technology is to blame entirely; it’s just part of a complex problem. Teachers sometimes reward students for being engines of productivity over anything else. We might consider rewarding quality rather than quantity more often. Teaching concentration skills and valuing the ability to focus has become part of our mission. I don’t think we should capitulate to those who claim it’s “natural” for the Millenials to multitask and therefore we need to adjust. Multitasking is not a skill; it’s a form of managing distractions and an attempt to maximize pleasure. Learning takes concentration.
Or maybe I just want my students to do their homework before — and not during — class. They’re so good at multitasking that they procrastinate.