Twittering and Continuous Partial Attention – Trevor Holmes

For a week, I’ve been Twittering. Normally, Mark Morton (intrepid voyager in neotechnology-land) would be the jolly fellow bringing you glad tidings of great techno-teaching joy. Having experimented for something like fifteen years in the classroom, though, I thought it would be fun to continue my Early Adopter mentality and change up my own course this coming Winter term over at That Other University down the street, adding a bunch of social networking tools that had previously existed in partial form or by accident in Cultural Studies 101. Fortuitously, my mind has been on the issue a lot anyway because of a couple of threads on the STLHE-L, the listserv for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (threads about laptop use and inappropriate behaviour in lectures). While most of my students don’t use things like Twitter (the microblogging, 140-character-maximum, social software), or even blogs or wikis, most do use laptops for MSN and Facebook or at least cell phones for texting (during class). I’d like to guide some of that chatter toward the course concepts and lecture material, and have done so in the past using real-time discussion folders in lecture, for example, in the course management system (WLU uses WebCT, sort of like our UW-ACE).

Twitter Logo
Twitter Logo

So there I am, Twittering. I find myself tweeting a bit, but more than that, enjoying the benefits of others’ tweets immensely. I’m following some authors (Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow), real musicians who tweet (mostly Slash, Pete Wentz, and Paula Abdul, unfortunately), my favourite chefs and food writers (Jamie Oliver and Ruth Reichl among them), and some friends in the higher ed teaching/learning support world. I can’t say I care much about the mundane updates that are part of the minute-by-minute stream. I dip in and out of said stream. I installed Tweetdeck, because it brings together sub-streams in ways I can control, plus it permits me to follow Facebook simultaneously in one place. Tweetdeck bings at me and appears in the upper right corner of my screen several times per minute, so that I only need glance over to see if there’s a new recipe, revelation, or useful link posted that I can follow up on later.

Which brings me to the problem. Linda Stone identifies Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) as the emergent, soon-to-be dominant paradigm of (at least) the North American way of being in the world. CPA is not multi-tasking. Multitaskers can actually get a lot accomplished in a given span of time. CPA refers instead to the constant distracted and emotionally-charged crisis state caused by permanently-tickled brain bits. Stone doesn’t judge. She challenges us to consider the differences between CPA and focused attention. I notice the difference at home — when I’m talking to Family and my Tweetdeck tweets, I pass my eyes over to it, “just to see.” Dirty looks from Family ensue, especially since my cell beeps a second or two later (yes, I had enabled Facebook updates to get sent as text messages — that lasted one day).

I’m all for explorations of new technologies, of the concept of the “backchannel” during events and lectures, of synchronous and semi-synchronous social learning… but I also want to listen to the student in this video, who, while praising his prof’s use of Twitter, also expresses a bit of frustration over how distracting it can be to use it in class to respond to a point while the prof is already a step or two ahead. I have the luxury of a short unit on new technologies in my cultural studies course, so I feel pretty confident that content and format will overlap. I’m not sure I’d be so quick to jump on this if my content and format did not overlap, though. Interested in other professors’ experiences? See Monica Rankin’s History experiment and a Tomorrow’s Professor Blog entry, and the Chronicle article about Sugato Chakravarty‘s class is a must-read.

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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