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the stillness of a spinning top

6 a.m. Saturday Morning. I peer down the wooded single-track, assessing the softness of the trail, soggy from the rain the night before and the mist hanging still in the air. The cuck-and-tuck chatter of robins and the whistled song of the cardinal urge me forward. Sunlight streaming through the winter-shocked bronze of oak leaves clinging still to their branches, rustling their rhythm like an African gourd, I follow a ribbon of light into the woods—the mud sucking my feet, and I losing myself in the staccato pattern of the stretch-step-hop, stutter-duck-and-weave of my trail runner’s gate.

curious running

I’m a long distance trail runner, and can spend hours in the woods—sometimes most the day—just putting one foot in front of the next. When time allows, I venture north to remote forests where I can run for hours without seeing another human being. I run silently. No music. On good days, the hours melt into a single moment that passes without awareness of effort.

The other day, as I was getting ready for a run, my son asked me how I can go out into the woods alone for so long with no music or other entertainment and not get bored. It was an interesting question to me. How is this so? It is true. I am never bored. In fact, I’m scarcely aware of time passing. I thought more on this, trying to figure out where my mind goes when running and determined that my mind moves between a couple of different states, I think, and this difference often depends on the terrain I am traversing. When the trail is flat, straight, and mostly predictable, my mind wanders. I do all kinds of things within my mind when running a flat, straight, trail. I work out problems, engage in some critical self-reflection, plan for my week ahead, consider the trajectory of my life thus far, write long drafts of ideas with no pen or paper, reread favorite books from memory, do math to calculate my pace, visualize my next race event, think about my relationships—past, future, and present—and on and on. The possibilities are endless, really. I can immerse myself in thinking about all sorts of things and be quite entertained through this process as my body is busy putting one foot in front of the next.

I am never bored. In fact, I’m scarcely aware of time passing.

The other state my mind moves to when running occurs when the trail gets a bit technical—with roots and rocks, hills, quick descents, twists, and turns. When running this kind of trail (my favorite kind), I am certainly not bored, but I also become far less aware of time passing. My attention becomes locked on the perpetual present as I work to negotiate the challenges of the trail before me. In some ways, this state of mind feels quite opposite to the wandering mind of the long, flat trail, but in other ways it is similar in that time ceases to exist. I am fully immersed in experience and my attention is focused—whether on what my mind conjures or on what my body demands.

the idea of boredom

The idea of boredom is quite interesting to me—probably because I don’t understand it very well—or at least I haven’t until I began doing a bit of research on the topic. I say I don’t understand boredom because, honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt bored. Truly. Maybe if I think really hard, I could muster something, but boredom plays very little role in my life. I suppose any moment of boredom I might have is quickly dispersed as I simply direct my attention elsewhere and become interested in something once again. Having said that, though, I am no stranger to boredom. I see people struggling with it everyday—my students mostly. How do I know they’re bored? Well, they tell me—usually after attempting a tough reading or after working on a challenging writing assignment. (Actually, they typically don’t say “tough” or “challenging” when describing these tasks; they are much more inclined to say “stupid” and “boring” instead.) I’ll be honest here, these comments can drive me nuts, and sometimes I want to say something snarky like “The assignment is boring and stupid?” Now, I would never mean this, but I’ve gotten so frustrated when I’ve seen students diverting blame to things outside of themselves when what they were really describing was something they had a good deal of control over, that is if they were to own it and work to understand it. But then again, who was I to judge? Like I said, only until just recently, have I begun to really understand the psychology behind boredom. I’ve been pretty content blaming my students for their unwillingness to work through challenging tasks and their quickness to blame the task itself for being “boring” or, of course, “stupid”—to externalize the causes of such difficulties. I’m realizing now, I was doing my own share of externalizing. If I really wanted to address boredom in my classes, I had to own it, and that means I had to work to understand it (especially since I myself wasn’t feeling it—at least not as far as recent memory serves me.)

the little we know

With little to go on other than my own biased observations, I began my research like any good academic. Surprisingly, what I discovered is that there is very little mature research on the human emotion of boredom. It seems I wasn’t the only one who didn’t entirely get it. But given the times we’re living in where boredom is something of an epidemic—“pervasive states of mind in economically privileged cultures and classrooms” (Csikszentmihalyi qtd. in Gute 191)—there were a few key studies that kept popping up to offer me the beginnings of insight.

Boredom: “pervasive states of mind in economically privileged cultures and classrooms”
– Csikszentmihalyi

Anna Gosline of Scientific American cites psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow psychology,” indicating that boredom can be explained, at least in part, in that “great absorption, focus and enjoyment of work results from a balance between our skills and the challenge of the tasks we face.” If pressed too far beyond our current skills as writers and readers, we will invariably become frustrated with the task. It’s just too hard, we say, or tedious or—more often—boring. The same is true for work that offers no challenge to our current skills. If something is too simple, too obvious, too easily done blind-folded, juggling chainsaws, and with one hand tied behind our backs, then, well, it is boring. Where’s the challenge? So, there are two different kinds of boring in these examples: the kind that comes from too little challenge and the kind that comes from too much.

anxiety masquerading as boredom

Digging a little deeper into the latter form of boredom—the kind that comes from too much challenge, the research suggests that this isn’t really boredom at all, not in the true sense anyway. If the demands of a task surpass an individual’s skill, it manifests as anxiety, but the results can be and often are the same—disengagement. A 2008 study published in The Journal of Education found that anxiety-based disengagement looks a lot like boredom. In other words, the symptoms are the same—clock-watching, sleepiness, difficulty concentrating. Other symptoms include producing inadequate notes, feeling sleepy in class, daydreaming, fighting the temptation to skip class. “The visible symptoms of failing to keep up (but wanting to) may look identical to symptoms of boredom/lack of interest” (Gute 203). This is the kind of “boredom” displayed by my student who recently said, “I couldn’t finish the reading because it didn’t make any sense. It was stupid and boring.”

Boredom and anxiety can have the same symptoms and the same result—disengagement.

It’s easy to misread the symptoms of habitual disengagement (or disengagement of the less pathological kind) as mere anti-intellectualism, immaturity, or apathy. Gute reminds us that teachers who feel like they are dragging their students through their educational experience (and misread the symptoms of disengagement) run the risk of investing less and less effort into their teaching, disengaging themselves, becoming cynical, or even hostile toward students (192). Yes, I’ve been there—one too many times, when my enthusiasm for the subject matter (or for being in the classroom for that matter) is not even remotely matched by my students. I’m not naive. I’ve known for a long time that the difficulty of the material I present my students with challenges them. I’m clear about it in the classroom, telling students that, yes, this is hard, but that’s the point. If we can work through this difficulty, we will have gained something. The dots I didn’t quite connect for myself were that the dismissal of the material by students may have very well been driven by anxiety—by a fear of failing—not by laziness or immaturity as I had presumed. The challenge at hand was pushing them (and their anxiety levels) beyond their threshold of tolerance and so kicked in one of the most common mechanisms of coping—distraction.

distraction to cope

Distraction and boredom, actually, are familiar bedfellows. While we are easily distracted when challenged to the point of boredom, we are also more easily bored when exposed to low-level distractions. Eastwood et al. in their 2012 comprehensive attempt to define boredom cite the research of James Laird of Clark University who studied the effects of low-level distractions—like a television in the next room—on participants engaged in a reading task. Those exposed to the mildly distracting sounds of the television more often found a reading task “boring” than those who were engaged in the activity without the distraction or even in loud conditions. Subtle distraction led to higher levels of boredom even when subjects were unaware or could not identify a source of distraction. The kicker, however, is that being distracted away from something makes us not like the thing we were distracted away from. Boredom is a negative emotional state resulting, as some would argue (Csikszentmihalyi), in the disruption of attention—the break in our internal sense of “flow.” When this happens, we are inclined to attribute the negative feelings to the unattended activity, e.g. “This task is horrible and boring” (Eastwood et al 487).

Laird conducted his study in 1989 (presumably when the best form of low-level distraction he could find was TV). Think for a second, though, about the number of such distractions we endure today. There is much more competing for our fragile attentions nowadays with the explosion of social media, mobile devices, video games, a full smörgåsbord of electronic and Internet entertainment and all the rest—all vying for our time and minds. There is some evidence to suggest that the constant din of distraction we live in has made many of us more distractable and therefore more easily bored.

what’s at stake and how to deal with it

“Being bored entails a reduction of attention; or responsiveness to conscious stimuli flattens out and shrinks; distinctions are not noticed and not made, so that the conscious field becomes increasingly homogeneous. The general functioning of the mind diminishes… homogenization is, at the limit, tantamount to the cessation of conscious experience altogether. [Boredom] threatens the extinction of the active self” (Frankfurt qtd. in Millgram 163-64).

5 strategies to conquer boredom

So how do we manage this push and pull of distraction? To answer that question we can return to this question of appropriate challenge. The problem we sometimes encounter is that we look to others to set our Goldilocks challenge appropriately—not too hard, not too soft, but just right. Anything other than just right, we sink into the muck of boredom and get nowhere (and may even blame others for our bind). This is particularly true in the case of too much challenge. If we can achieve the right balance between skill and challenge, we can stave off our own distraction-seeking behavior. That’s half the battle.

“[Boredom] threatens the extinction of the active self.”
– Frankfurt

Really productive readers and writers have learned how to adjust to varying degrees of challenge. In the case of what feels like a task with too little challenge, effective readers/writers can work to raise the challenge to meet their skills. In other words, they can challenge themselves by working toward their own weaknesses—by making it harder for themselves. In situations where the task itself seems just out of reach, effective readers/writers become comfortable stretching their skills to meet the challenge at hand, recognizing that there is something to be gained in engaging with the difficult; in fact, there can be a certain pleasure that comes with it.

There are ways we can work to better our focus, manage the push and pull of distraction, increase our attention spans, and develop our abilities to sustain our efforts on challenging cognitive tasks—including reading and writing.

  1. Practice Thinking—We are easily pulled away from our own thoughts, especially if they are not particularly clear at first. One can see this in how some of us speak about things we are unsure of. We may begin to venture down the path of our ideas but then the road gets a bit craggy or the fog rolls in and the way ahead isn’t easy or clear, so we bail on our own thinking with an “Oh, never mind…” or a “Forget it.” We find ourselves against the wall of boredom—of the kind of too much challenge—and so we look for a shortcut off the trail, a fast track back to the safety of our complacent minds. Writing can help with this. Laying words to paper forces us to articulate what we might otherwise give up on. It forces us to think things through—that is if we give ourselves permission to do so. Writing lets us sit with our thoughts in a way speaking does not. If we force ourselves to write, resisting the lure of distraction, writing forces us to think, and so we get stronger. Practicing deep, sustained thinking is one way to stave off boredom.
  2. Practice Stillness—In our fast-paced, competitive culture there’s this idea that if you are standing still, you are moving backward. In other words, if everyone is moving so quickly around us, we had better move quickly too lest we get left behind. There may be some truth to this when talking about scientific and technological research and development, or individual professional skills development, or educational attainment; however, the idea of shrugging off stillness in favor of continuous motion is something of a distortion. This is particularly true when you consider that so much of this continuous motion keeps us from focusing our attention. It serves instead as a way to keep us distracted from sustained thinking and difficult tasks. Continuous motion may work as a coping mechanism or a quick fix to keep boredom at bay, but it accomplishes little else and fails to cultivate the power of focused attention. A still mind is not necessarily a stagnant mind. Rather, it is like a spinning top. The faster and more precisely it spins, the more still it appears. It is focused. Alive with energy, but still. We can practice this kind of stillness and become comfortable with it by simply sitting and breathing for set periods of time. Call it meditation if you’d like. Certainly there are many developed traditions and methods of meditation you can look further into if you’d like. For now, however, try sitting alert and awake and perfectly still for 15 minutes each morning. Calm your mind. Breathe. Be still. With practice, you will see the difference this can make on your ability to sustain attention (and avoid boredom).
  3. Talk Less, Listen More—Part of practicing stillness is quieting the mind, closing the mouth, and opening the ears. We are all guilty of not doing this as much as we should. “Life moves pretty fast,” Ferris Bueller reminds us in the classic John Hughes film. It does. Our minds tend to wobble two and fro with all of life whipping around us (not at all like that perfectly balanced top spinning in perfect stillness). We have our agenda and sometimes our interactions with others become driven by that agenda. We look single-mindedly for a bit of needed information, or we think about what we want to say next, or we are push a person along or interrupt them—whichever is needed—to meet our immediate needs. We are distracted by all the pressure and our minds assume all the wobbly whirling of a slow moving top about to fall on its side. Yes, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” continues Ferris. Take care not to be distracted away from the splendor of things or people right in front of you. Be patient. Let people finish their sentences. Look them in the eyes and listen to what they mean—not just what they are saying. Words are imperfect sometimes (or the people using them faulter). Listen for meaning. Delay the gratification of satisfying your immediate agenda-driven need for something far more interesting.
  4. Limit/Remove Low-level Distractions—TV, social media, video games, and the plethora of other media we fill our days with can be great learning and communication tools, but they get in the way of silence, which can also teach us a lot—a lot more than many think actually. To increase your attention span and perhaps your ability to find more things interesting (i.e. to be less bored), try limiting or removing these kind of media distractions from your life—particularly anything in the form of “background noise” when you are trying to engage in a challenging task. Or, if you really want to challenge yourself, try going one day with no social media. Or maybe turn off your mobile/smart phone for the day. (Could you live without it? I bet you could.) If you just can’t bring yourself to turn off your phone, maybe try this: each time during the day when you are about to check Facebook, twitter, texts, or whatever your pleasure is, stop yourself and ask if it is absolutely critical that you do so or if you are just “bored” in the moment and trying to distract yourself. If you’re honest, you might be surprised at your own habits. See what happens if you change those habits even for a short while.
  5. Act “Smart”—The opposite of being bored is being engaged. You can apply a conscious effort to get engaged with the world around you and in doing so never be bored again. So called “smart” people are seldom if ever bored, so act smart—not to say that you’re not already a smart person, but practicing certain “smart” habits can strengthen that noodle and make life more interesting for you. For example, try regularly reading beyond your comfort zone. Developmental Psychologist Lev Vygotsky postulated that we learn best in what he called the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) where new learning is best achieved when it lies just out of reach of our current development. In simple terms, we learn by stretching just beyond our comfort zone and when we are supported by others in this process. As smart people, we can get that support from others by engaging with them, by being curious and asking lots of questions. Also, to pit your smarts against boredom, try seeing the meaning in all things. Life in general and the world of ideas in particular is pretty amazing in that everything is connected in some way. Look for those connections, connect the dots in all that you read, hear, and see to make meaning from it. Be a deep thinker and reject anti-intellectualism every chance you get. (It is, indeed, cool to be the smartest kid in the room. That kid is never bored.)

the life you save…

“If you stay the same, you will become bored enough to whish you were dead.”
– Millgram

“[Boredom] threatens the extinction of the active self,” suggests Frankfurt in his research on the subject. “The general functioning of the mind diminishes. […] The more you’re bored, the less you’re there” (cited. in Millgram 163-64 and 182). Boredom is a kind of stagnation—of the most severe kind. A failure to engage—whether it be from the anxiety of too much challenge or the ennui of too little, the result is dangerously the same. Not engaging is a discarded wooden top at the bottom of a child’s toy chest, lying motionless on its side in the dust. “If you stay the same, you will become bored enough to whish you were dead” (Milligram 182). Instead, strive for a carefully attuned mindfulness. In the Japanese language, it’s called sumkiri, meaning a sharpness of body and mind. The term actually refers to the ideal movement in the Japanese martial art of Aikido where the master redirects a barrage of attackers with seemingly no effort—with the stillness of a spinning top—an immovable center, focused and engaged.

We live in exciting times. There is so much to learn, so much to do. You have control over whether you are bored or not. Boredom is an emotion, after all, a negative one at that. Most theories of emotion argue that thinking precedes emotion, so take control of your thinking here. Develop the habits of mind and good practices described above to work yourself out of “couch-potato-dom” and a life of boredom. It can change your life; it might even save it.

works cited

Brand, Alice G., and Phoebe A. Leckie. “The Emotions Of Professional Writers.” Journal Of Psychology 122.5 (1988): 421. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Eastwood, John D., Alexandra Frischen, Mark J. Fenske, and Daniel Smilek. “The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7.5 (2012): 482-495. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Gute, Deanne, and Gary Gute. “Flow Writing In The Liberal Arts Core And Across The Disciplines: A Vehicle For Confronting And Transforming Academic Disengagement.” JGE: The Journal Of General Education 57.4 (2008): 191-222. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Millgram, Elijah. “On Being Bored Out Of Your Mind.” Proceedings Of The Aristotelian Society (Paperback) 104.2 (2004): 163-184. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
Vygotsky, Lev. “Interaction between Learaning and Development.” Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Havard UP, 1978. 79-91. Print.

attachments, digital life, and my flippin’ class

We live in the blurry space between the virtual and the real. Recently, I heard a talk in which the presenter Michael Vaugn from Elan University quoted the following: “Computing isn’t about computers anymore. It’s about living.” (He didn’t so much say this, as he let the quote linger on his slide in the background while making his own argument.) His slide was quoting Nicholas Negropante, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). His use of Negropante’s words, however, did not provide the full and proper context. The fuller quote from Negropante’s 1995 book Being Digital is as follows:

Computing isn’t about computers anymore. It’s about living. The giant central computer, the so-called mainframe, has been almost universally replaced by personal computers, so they’ve moved from giant air-conditioned offices, onto desktops, onto our laps and now in our pockets. This is not the end. Mass media will be redefined by systems for transmitting and receiving personalized information and entertainment. Schools will be more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world. The digital planet will look and feel like the head of a pin. (230)

Certainly Negropante was reading technology trends with prophetic accuracy. However, given what he’s gone on to do with the OLPC program, his implication strikes me as one more about the promise of technology—about fair access to fundamental information and educational resources that computers (and access to the Internet) can bring to children in developing nations and all over the world. He is not (IMHO) referring to the First World’s mindless addiction to social media technologies (or the celebration and embracing of such trends as Vaugn implies.)

I fancy technology. It’s no lie. But I also resist consumer trends, tech and otherwise. I like to tinker—sometimes with reckless abandon—and my insistence on using free and open-source technologies whenever possible (even when it creates time-consuming challenges) is as much an eco-political stance as it is a hobby. Even so, I’m quick to dig my heels into old ground—a place where screens do not mediate our every human experience, and so my stance becomes one of the curmudgeonly kind, or so it seems.

I’m quick to dig my heels into old ground—a place where screens do not mediate our every human experience.

As a writing teacher with this tinkering interest, it’s no surprise that technology plays a significant role in my classes. For years, I’ve been using computer technology to engage my students (and myself), streamline classroom logistics, and walk my idea of the bleeding edge in both composition theory and educational practice. I’ve always harbored a degree of insecurity with my approaches, though, wondering if being outside of the mainstream somehow was a disservice to my students. As of late, however, aspects of mainstream edu-tech and the trajectory of my own work have aligned most apparently with the emergence of the so-called “flipped classroom.”

Most succinctly, the flipped classroom is a technology-enabled reversal from the traditional way classroom time is spent. In most basic terms, teacher talk (lecture, verbose explanation, etc.) is moved online for students to prepare before class, and what used to be homework (skills practice, application of concepts, etc.) is moved into the classroom where peer and instructor support is most immediate. Scroll through the info-graphic below for more or see it in it’s original context here.

For several years now, I’ve supported my classroom with tech used in this way. I moved to a paperless course by making essential documents available electronically; I’ve facilitated all student-student and student-instructor paper exchange through a course website; we’ve extended our classroom conversations to online spaces when face-to-face time ran short; I’ve made a variety of rich media available online to students to supplement our coursework. Regarding classroom time, I’ve leaned heavily toward student-led approaches, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning—effectively moving me, as instructor, to the sidelines most of the time. Nowadays, I feel my approach legitimized with all the buzz of flipping. This has allowed me to push still further to provide more of the core “content” of my course fully online for students to work through before class and return to as needed. I’m rethinking and reworking even more aggressively my approach to classroom time, avoiding protracted explanations, presentation, or lecture in favor of supported group work almost entirely.

I worry about the hangover that will inevitably come after the intoxication of “anywhere, anytime, any device learning” wears off.

Still, my heels find their footholds. In speaking with a colleague who has recently flipped her class with a gusto, I worry about the hangover that will inevitably come after the intoxication of “anywhere, anytime, any device learning” wears off. My esteemed colleague raises good questions about the relevancy of the long-winded assignment handout, text-heavy online lessons, the sage-on-the-stage professor, and all that which by ordinary comes in the form of words—so many words. She cites the importance of digital and visual literacies and cogently supports her claims with research regarding the ways our young digital natives think, negotiate, and experience their world. Still, as I interact with my students and the many young people I encounter nowadays, I observe a marked decline in social skills—people unable to carry on a conversation, make a phone call, write a professional e-mail, or sustain their attention for any length of time. Trying so desperately to keep with the times, will we see fewer and fewer students who can comprehend and be moved by powerful written texts? Will it become unreasonable to expect our students to work through difficult ideas (or anything that doesn’t “flicker” or—more to the point—entertain?)

So I continue to tinker—in search of the right high-tech, old-school balance that will engage my students, facilitate their success on all levels, afford them with the opportunity and the skills not just to move quickly in life, but also to sit with me in slow conversation, to look me in the eye and have the patience to hear me out before contributing their own thoughtful verse.

used shoes, service, and humility

A busy semester has come to a close, and finally now I have a few minutes to reflect in writing. Again, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been digging further into service learning as my pedagogical approach of choice–and really immersing myself much more deeply into acts of service in the process. Many of my students, as this semester has wrapped up, have reported what I [singlepic=1119,330,330] Shoes are heavier than you think.can only call “transformative” experiences. I get comments occasionally from students about how the class really changed them, but I’m usually skeptical about such remarks–especially if they come before final grades are posted. Are they only telling me what they think I want to hear? I’m no less skeptical this time around, but I can say that I’ve gotten remarkably more of such comments this semester than ever before–and many continue to come in now–even after grades have been posted. I can’t help but think I struck a chord with students. People want to be involved, they want their lives to be connected to others and to worthwhile endeavors; it’s just that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. I think the class this semester gave some of them a place to start. It’s been cool. I can say that this is the first semester I can remember where I didn’t feel beaten up at the end. Rather, I’m feeling energized and excited about what’s next.

I remain engaged with some of the organizations I started working with along with my students this past semester–The Share Your Soles Foundation is one of those organizations. In fact, I only just recently wrapped up a two-month long shoe drive (that started as a student project, but eventually became my project). I also continue to assist Share Your Soles with their newsletter, other mailings, and writing as needed. Thursday Chris and I attended their anniversary fundraising event, as well. It’s been quite fun being involved with this organization and meeting all kinds of cool people along the way. I plan to continue my involvement. If you ever met Mona Purdy–the founder of Share Your Soles–you might wonder if I even have a choice in the matter. Mona is the kind of person you just can’t say no to, but that’s a good thing–truly.

It’s in moments like these that one understands that honor lies in the service of others.

One thing I am most appreciating in the service-learning work I am doing with my students is the opportunity to work side-by-side with students outside of the classroom. The baggage of the student-teacher relationship really falls away when you are sorting used shoes together, sweeping a floor, or boxing food. It’s grunt work–sometimes dirty–but it is humbling. I am reminded of my time in Japan studying Aikido. After a hard practice I recall vividly how the master whom everybody so revered as expert and wise teacher would be the first to take a wet rag from a bucket of water and–on hands and knees–begin wiping down the mats. We all worked together in the most mundane but necessary of tasks–side-by-side regardless of rank, age, or status. It’s in moments like these that one understands that honor lies in the service of others.

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