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Multitasking State of Mind

By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Photo Illustration by
Scott Roberts
I did not turn in my final assignments. I would really like to do so. ... I am wondering if you have already turned in my grade, and if not will you tell me what my grade is before you turn it in. I need to graduate next semester ... and I can't get a D or F. I would rather get a W and take the class again. Please let me know.

That e-mail arrived a week after the semester was over. Though this student had missed a few classes, she cited no health or family crisis. When I got the final grade roster, I realized she wasn't even registered for my fall writing course.

Did she just forget?

Sometimes phenomena or trends ripple through society; other times they create tidal waves. This past school year, I witnessed a tidal wave hit the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. Call it ADD Nation or IM Generation, but a different batch of students has arrived on college campuses.

In a faculty meeting in December, a few of my colleagues said there had been a big shift recently. It's been a particularly bad semester, they said. More students are zoning out, less able to complete assignments. Others are unconcerned with details, more likely to skim the surface.

The art of communication, especially, seems to be suffering. Students send fragmented e-mails that border on rudeness. (One student wrote that I should regularly e-mail the class reminders about what assignments are due each week.) Others request final grade adjustments as though they were disgruntled consumers. One student, who wondered why he didn't get an A, raised his hand each week in class and whined, "Can we take a break?" My not-even-on-the-roster student had piped up during class one day, "Oh, yeah. I owe you a paper."

I have been teaching for nearly 10 years, and I've never seen anything like it.

What's going on?

The rudeness doesn't appear to be wholly intentional. Students seem more distracted than disrespectful. Some even come to class in a zombie-like state that surpasses sleep deprivation. To me it resembles the frazzled fallout of addiction, and — during a three-hour lecture or discussion class — slack-jawed, eye-glazed withdrawal. Really, mouths hanging open and everything.

For some students, attention spans hover around 1 minute, 45 seconds. To them, I am just another click-and-skim Web site.

As I looked around, I saw that students indeed have little tolerance for anything that doesn't have the split-second, image-splashing pace of a Spike TV commercial or an Internet pop-up ad. Antsy with mere existence, they are often tuned everywhere but where they actually are. Multitaskers extraordinaire, many spend their days — and nights — distracted by cell phones, iPods, text messaging, chat rooms, and social Web sites like Facebook or MySpace. Seems to me, our youth are just too connected to the technological ether.

I'm not the only one noticing. Time magazine, the American trend meter, ran a cover story in March titled "Are Kids Too Wired for Their Own Good?" As the story notes, "media multitasking" has hit warp speed in the past few years: "The mental habit of dividing one's attention into many small slices has significant implications for the way young people learn, reason, socialize, do creative work, and understand the world." Apparently, the brain can "toggle" quickly from one task to another. Many of these students are master togglers. As Time points out, "Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one tends to ever more tasks."

Not all students are in such a distracted state, of course. On the trend's upside, this technologically literate generation manipulates vast amounts of data with lightning dexterity. Hopkins students are smart — they use computers to design everything from heart surgery devices to engineering prototypes that can extract every ounce of ketchup from a bottle. Increasingly, however, my already overcommitted students complain about not having enough time or energy to focus.

The repercussions from such synaptic juggling, apparently, are just surfacing. I spoke with Vernon Savage, associate director of the Counseling Center at Homewood. Distraction has surged since Hopkins went online in dorms a few years ago, he says. "You sit in your room with an iPod and all of the technology available, so you can escape more easily," he says. "Procrastination is very sinister. It works for a few minutes to alleviate anxiety about the task pending. Then, as a result, you don't have as much time to finish the task." Maybe that's why papers seem more thrown together at the last minute.

But didn't we all have distractions as college students? TV. Significant others. CDs. Wine coolers with Skittles chasers. As I remember it, I still paid attention to one thing at a time: When I was with friends, I didn't try to work, too. Yet I asked one of my writing classes in the spring, "How many of you do several things at once?" Everyone raised his or her hand. One student says it takes him forever to finish a calculus assignment when his computer keyboard is in reach. Another student said that she cooks, watches TV, instant messages, and does her homework all at the same time. And those who are overtaxed don't seem to like it very much. "I'm stressed all the time," one student told me.

Still, I wondered why there was such a big shift now. Then I started counting on my fingers: College students today are among the first generation raised on the Internet — which became widely accessible starting in the early 1990s — when sophomores were just 6 or 7 years old. These students are trained to toggle, and their attention spans reflect this new mode of communication. I talked to Ben Locke, an expert in technology on college campuses and assistant director at Penn State University's counseling center. "The generation coming into school now grew up with this technology, and they don't know how to live without it," he says. "Technology has gone from sitting on a shelf to being on a person all day long." As a result, he notes: "Multitasking used to be a way of getting things done. Now it's a state of mind."

When students can't go the few minutes between classes without flipping open cell phones, it's as though they can't bear the silence. "Students don't disengage, they don't slow down," Locke says. "When they aren't connected, they don't know quite what to do with themselves."

In the end, students are experiencing life secondhand — text messaging each other at a concert, for example, instead of focusing on the music. Life increasingly seems to be All About Chat. As Locke and other researchers have noted, students are losing face-to-face communication skills, or not even developing those skills at all.

As was the case with my absentee student, the inability to pay attention translated into an inability to talk about a problem. E-mail creates more distance and requires less courage. (Apparently, she also faced bad grades in other courses, writing to me that she just didn't know what to tell her professors.) Having no other contact information, I e-mailed her back about whether she was registered for the course. I never heard from her again.

Because I teach elements of communication — literature and writing — I'm wondering how to help my students focus. Multitasking, after all, is the anti-Zen. Living — really living and connecting with people — requires concentration, not distraction.

So instead of keeping pace with the Multimedia Madness, I want to alter the rhythm — bring in a yoga instructor and assign more readings in transcendental meditation. The late author J. Krishnamurti, in his 1964 book, Think on These Things, advised people to pay attention to the silence: "It is very important to have space in the mind. If the mind is not overcrowded, not ceaselessly occupied, then it can listen to that dog barking, to the sound of the train crossing the distant bridge, and also be fully aware of what is being said by a person talking here. Then the mind is a living thing, it is not dead."

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and an essayist.

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