motivation and attention as matters of concern

Motivation and attention are common subjects of discussion in our graduate teaching practicum. Students in composition don’t seem motivated to do the readings or really work on their assignments. They don’t pay attention in class. They are distracted by their devices. They don’t participate as much as we would like. None of these are new problems in the classroom. Of course they have been made new to some degree by their combination with emerging technologies. Fear not though, this is not yet another “laptops in the classroom” post.

In the past I have written here and elsewhere about the concept of “intrinsic motivation.” Essentially the point is the complex creative tasks, such as the kind of writing tasks we often assign in college, are hard to accomplish, indeed can often be inhibited, by extrinsic motivations (e.g. grades). To develop as a writer one needs an “intrinsic motivation” to succeed, which requires some sense of autonomy, a task that is within reach (insert zone of proximal development talk here), and some purpose (which could be “becoming a better writer” or could be any goal that could be achieved through writing, e.g. winning a grant). Indeed we rarely want to “become a better writer.” Instead, we might want to be a more successful grant writer, finish and publish our monograph, attract more readers to our blogs, and so on. Are those extrinsic motivations? Hmmm… good question.

I’ll set that question aside though and come at this from a Latourian angle (as the “matters of concern” reference in the title promises). Let’s say that agency is an emergent capacity of relations rather than an internal characteristic of humans. In that case, when one says “intrinsic motivation” (hence all the scare quotes), one must respond by asking “intrinsic to what?” The conventional answer is intrinsic to the self or individual. In Latourian terms though one might try to say intrinsic to the network but even that doesn’t work so very well as networks are not the most discretely bounded entities. In networks, actors are “made to do.” Inasmuch, they can be “made to be intrinsically motivated,” even though the makers are not necessarily all “inside.” In the end intrinsic motivation has to do with an actor’s affective relationship to a given task. So while I think it is rhetorically useful to suggest to students that they must find some intrinsic motivation for writing, I think it is more accurate to say that we need to compose networks of motivation.

Attention offers a similar problem. We ask students to pay attention and speak of economies of attention. I think we imagine attention as a limited natural resource and as an internal human characteristic. Again though, if we imagine that we are “made to attend” to actors and networks then attention is an emergent capacity. Furthermore, attention might be too general a concept, including a range of cognitive activities from “single-point” to “multi” to “hyper.” Is introspective attention the same as the attention required driving in heavy traffic as that of listening to a lecture as that of making a free throw in a close game? Do we think neuroscience can answer that question? Certainly networks (a lecture hall for example) are designed so that humans are made to attend to the speaker in a particular way (not that they always work).

With matters of concern (see “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern“), Latour seeks to move away from the two-step critical process that either criticizes the person who claims s/he is made to do something by an external object (because objects have no real control over us; that’s all in our minds)  or criticizes the person who believes s/he has free will (because we are shaped by cultural-ideological forces). So it is neither acceptable to say that we can’t pay attention because other objects distract us (maybe that’s true but we are responsible for turning them off then) or to say I have control over may ability to pay attention (because ideological-cultural forces shape my desire). Do students express free will when seeking motivation to write or are their motivations overdetermined by ideology? Yes and yes. No and no. Science comes along and offers measurements of the plasticity of the brain and the effects of new technologies upon it. We conduct studies on the cognitive limits of attention. We make motivation into a science as well. Human nature, cultural forces, the individual capacity for thought or agency: where does one begin and the other start? And what role do technologies play? They are real objects with their own “natures,” their own science, but also their own cultural contexts.

Ban computers from the classroom. Does that make you a fetishist because you believe these devices make people do things? Does it mean that you naively believe that once the devices are out of the room the students will be free from the overdetermining forces of society? Can we be more or less overdetermined? Of course not because no one can live in those old critical worlds (any longer). We live in a messier world of hybrids where attention and motivation are emergent phenomena that are always up for grabs in any network.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

One reply on “motivation and attention as matters of concern”

When I went to University I was about as intrinsically motivated as you can get, and I straight up picked which courses I was going to put effort into and which ones I wasn’t.

It went like this:
1) My finances were based on limited savings and loans. The availability of both dropped over time. In my case, after approximately 4 years I was going to be leaving University whether I was finished or not. Therefore time was the enemy.
2) My total costs were lowered by taking more courses at once. Therefore, it was efficient economically to burden myself with as many courses as I could bear in every semester.
3) Not all courses have the same burden of effort required. I found I could bear about 3 courses I had to seriously engage in, and still be able to float through several other easier courses which didn’t require much attention. It was way more efficient financially to throw on extra courses I could ignore than to take additional semesters when I had time to deal with them squarely, even if that meant a hit to my cgpa.
4) When signing up for courses, I picked 3 or less to focus on, and filled the remainder of my schedule with what I assumed were either ticket punching courses, or courses I could safely half-ass for some other reason. It wasn’t really possible to change focus after the first week. Doing so would basically crater both courses, so I was pretty much committed effort wise by the time I met the professor. In order to focus on a course I’d chosen to coast through, I’d have to get one of the other heavy courses off my schedule to free up room. Nothing the professor said on the first day would change that reality.
5) I picked courses to focus on based on:
-Expectations of the difficulty of subject matter.
-My level of preparedness for that subject.
-Professor name, course name, and any rumors I’d heard about the difficult or time consumption involved.
-Course description.
-Scheduling and degree logistics.
-General importance of the subject.

Anyway, in my opinion, your best hope of gaining more student attention and effort in fyc, is communicating to students prior to course sign up. It is already too late when they walk in the door on day 1. They need to know what effort is involved, how it will affect them later in their degree and career, and why your course deserves more focus than the other courses they’re taking that semester.
estou aqui
As it happened, I did choose fyc as a course to focus on. It was based on my belief I was left totally unprepared from high school (which was accurate), and my belief that it would either become a useful capability and relative advantage, or a boat anchor later in my degree and career. I also believed that recreating a new writing process was going to be required, and that would be time-consuming, difficult, and non-obvious, and it was a 50/50 toss up whether I would succeed at all. That last observation was extremely unusual. I had no question at all about my ability to succeed completely through my entire degree in my main disciplines. I considered FYC the weakest and most uncertain link on my entire journey.


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