This is Cathy Davidson’s brain on the internet

Warning: this post is long.  According to attention studies, you will likely space out every 5 minutes.

After I posted a few weeks ago about Cathy Davidson’s new book, an announcement magically appeared that she would be speaking at the grad center tonight.  So, I am of course here, and bringing it to you live on the internet. (Well, not really.  I am adopting the ethos of live blogging, i.e. commenting as we go, but I will publish all of this at the end of the talk).

6:23 There are a lot of people here.  I have somehow inserted myself into a class that is all sitting together.  There is a line outside and they are about to reach capacity.  This is a good thing for scholarship and the world in general.

6:26 They are passing out pencils and paper for audience participation.  This seems rather odd at talk about the internet, but reminds me of how I’ve been passing out paper sign-up sheets at my workshops for ePortfolios.  Ah, the contradictions of technology.

6:28 A slide has gone up. The title of the talk (and the book) is “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We LIve, Work, and Learn.”

6:32 The talk is starting! There will be many introductions.

6:37 Prof. Victoria Pitts-Taylor points out the ubiquity of neuroscience all over the press and how it’s important that not just hard science people engage with it.  I agree.  Autobiography theorists have been interested in neuroscience, its relationship to memory and how that interacts with life writing for a while.

6:39 President Kelly points out there are 30 people waiting outside trying to get in!

6:41 President Kelly reminds me how much I admire Cathy Davidson’s early work, particularly Revolution and the Word, which changed the way people looked at early American literature and helped to inspire my interests in readership and reception which have informed much of my own work.  Highly recommended.

6:46 Davidson (CD) founded the organization HASTAC which will be of interest to JJ students and faculty who are engaged with technology inside and outside the classroom.

6:48 NOW the talk is really starting!

6:50 CD says all academic talks just have 3 main points (academic humor).  She might be right.

6:51 CD shares 4 great information ages: (1) invention of writing, (2) moveable type, (3) machine made paper, ink, presses (i.e. books available to middle and working class people — direct access to information, development of public education), (4) NOW (post-1995 with commercialization of the internet — people can put their ideas out there unmediated).

6:53 What do we do with institutions of ed that developed in an industrial age when we are now in a digital age?

6:59 Just finished an exercise that started with a formal “timed test” and then turned and talked to our neighbor about what we wrote.  I said that education in the future should teach students how to use the technology that is available and how to choose which types of that technology they should use for what types of projects (Are jbloggers readers surprised?!).  I also said that we need to focus on evaluating sources, so that students (of all ages) are able to work with the ridiculous number of sources that are readily available on the internet.  My partner said we should make sure to discuss audience and address the fact that now audiences are much broader and may have different motivations than the traditional audiences for undergraduate work.

7:00 CD address the myths about the internet (she calls it “silliness”).  The worst one: the internet (and multi-tasking) is damaging a whole generation of brains.

7:03 References the famous gorilla/basketball experiment (Gorilla in the Midst – ha!)


7:06 Also discusses that in flight simulation, 60% of pilots will be too focused on landing to notice what they are landing on (like a huge aircraft carrier perpendicular to the runway).  That’s scary, and, as CD notes, a good lesson to learn in simulation before real life.

7:07 Her point: distraction is not about computers.  Also, we think we know what we see/understand/experience, but we don’t.  We should be modest about what we do not see.

7:09 CD is ultimately interested in institutional change (this is relevant to John Jay).  It’s important to have people who see the gorilla and people who count the basketballs.  But, we (who often just count the basketballs) need to trust the people who see the gorillas.  Gorilla-seers need to seek out basketball-counters and vice versa.

7:11 “Institutions tend to preserve the problems they were designed to solve.” – Clay Shirky

7:12 Public education was designed to train industrial workers and valued these characteristics: attention, timeliness, standards/standardization, hierarchy, specialization, expertise, credentials, metrics, binaries (science vs. humanities).

7:14 My theory that Henry James or William James must be mentioned in all academic talks is proven again.  Here: William James originated theories of attention in Principles of Psychology (1890).

7:17 CD: Frederick J. Kelly invented the multiple choice test in 1914.  Inspired by Fordism.  Kelly acknowledged that this was only a way to test lower-order thinking.

7:19 CD: Kids need to learn how to browse now, how to assess all of this information that they can find in less than a second on google.

7:21 Apparently, the American Library Association says that wikipedia is as accurate as anything else.

7:25 If you’re on twitter, follow ToughLoveforX, CD’s fav twitterer.  Sec. of Ed. Arne Duncan follows this guy!  That is pretty amazing.  I also found this personal newspaper creator/curation service when I followed ToughLoveforX.  This would be an interesting tool to use in a classroom, and could be great for students who like to blog as well.

7:36 Now Prof. Jesse Prince (JP) is giving a response presentation.  It’s called “Sizing Up Our Digital Futures.”  He’s structured this around “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

7:37 JP coins what he calls an “ugly” term: Technoptimism, i.e. a hopefulness about the internet and the digital age. Shows an image about how there is twice the level of neuroactivity when we look at a webpage vs. a page of print/text.

7:42 Google is with us all the time.  Your brain is as big as the internet.

7:44 He just did a version of the gorilla and basketball test for us here.  I am a basketball counter.  Not a shock.

7:46 Within a 45-minute period, people zone out about every 5 minutes.  Prof. Prince is now talking about “the bad” of the internet.  There are concerns about attention.  ADHD is on the rise (in my opinion, this is just because people are diagnosing it more).

7:48 Luckily, Prof. Prince acknowledges that ADHD might not be a real thing/may not exist.  See article by Lydia Maria Furman, MD in Journal of Child Neurology (July 2008).  He suggests it may be a medicalization of childhood.  I like that terminology.

7:49 There is now a picture of a clown teaching a class on the screen.  He is worried that now education has become edutainment.  He just noted that edutainment does not come up wrong on the spell checker.  I can attest to that fact, as my spell checker has not been triggered.

7:52 Now we are up to “the ugly” of the internet.  Apparently, the correlation of violent media to actual violence is second only to the correlation between smoking and cancer.

7:54 Video games are sexist.  This study shows that sexism in video games makes people think sexual harassment is acceptable.

7:55 There is lots of pornography on the internet. This may be making people more sexist.

7:56 Crowd sourcing has been influential in conservative politics.  For liberals, this is disturbing.  There is a danger that technology is an instrument of capitalism.

I am noticing that all of these issues, the good, the bad, and the ugly of the internet, were brought up at the faculty development session I participated in a few weeks ago.

Suggestions: digitize everything, play prosocial games, hypertext “the classics,” make better democracy (like the Swiss!), take a day off from technology, read Cathy’s book.

8:04 Q and A for both speakers begins.

8:10 CD: we need to use technology in a way that serves us, not in a way that makes us serve the technology.  This is exactly what I’ve been saying about letting the pedagogy drive the technology in terms of classroom technology.

8:24 Good question about how to teach creatively toward an antiquated end (in other words, how do you teach well when your students have to take a test).  This is asked in the context of CUNY’s departmental tests, but obviously is relevant to public k-12 schooling.  CD: Cites teachers who say “Yeah, we have to do this, so what else can we do?” and explain to students how to make an end-of-grade test a problem that you solve, and tell students that this is a hurdle, like there will always be hurdles you have to jump over.  This reminds me of the games and assignments I designed to prep my fourth graders for the end-of-grade science test.

If you got to the end of this blog, your attention span has not been “damaged” by the internet.  This talk convinced me that even if you didn’t get to the end of this blog, it hasn’t been damaged either.



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