Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spring Fever

Well, the week turned out to be exactly as busy as I predicted, and I complicated matters by developing Spring Fever. (Also somewhat as predicted.)

Every winter, I sit at home with a book and read and think, "This summer, I'm going to paint this room. It's too drab. Why did I think this looked okay?"

In my mind's eye, what I envision is a leisurely summer cheerfully spent daubing paint on a wall or two, musing about colors, enjoying the emerging change.

For the past two years, what has happened is, the minute the outdoor temperature rises above 65 degrees, I begin a do-or-die painting marathon that looks nothing like what I envisioned.
So that's what I embarked on last week. For reasons that are in no way rational or reasonable, I decided that to my "To Do List," I was going to add, "Paint the living room and the dining room."

I did it. It's done. It looks good, I'm pleased. It wasn't really necessary that I do it at this time and in this way, but that's what happened.

I suspect that this manifestation of Spring Fever is exacerbated by the fact that early spring is always marked by the need to do a lot of reading and grading. A fellow-teacher friend and I were once discussing how sometimes, it's helpful to take a break from grading and do some other task, like cleaning.

She pointed out, however, that this can quickly get out of control. I thought for a moment and then said, "You mean like when you're up on a chair vacuuming drapes and you suddenly think, 'Why am I doing this?' and then remember, "Oh, yeah: I have grading to do."

It can quickly get out of control.

This type of procrastination is distinctly different from the kind of multi-tasking a lot of students do (and no, I'm not just saying that to justify myself). In a recent blog post entitled, "Why Learning and Multitasking Don't Mix," on The Creativity Post, Annie Murphy Paul points out that "when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new context."

Try telling that to my students. They really do feel like they do good work--if not "their best" work--when the cell phone's nearby, the TV's on or the ipods hooked to their ears, Facebook is open, and they're chatting with friends online and/or texting.

The way in which college students complete their work has changed drastically in the 20-plus years since I graduated from college. The most we had was a radio or a stereo or a TV. Some people had a Walkman, but those had to be loaded with a CD, so your options were limited.

Computers were expensive and rare. Most people had to go to a computer lab if they wanted to use one. There were no laptops. NO ONE talked to their mom every single day, multiple times a day. You could only be distracted by the phone if it rang. You could only talk to, at most, two people on a phone at once: one of them would be sitting on hold while you finished up your conversation with the other.

When I found out how students worked on homework, I almost had a nervous breakdown. Yes, I can see listening to music while studying. (I don't have it piped into my ear canals though, because I read a study years ago about how that destroys your hearing.)

But you have to shut the distractions down, if you want to do anything productive. The brain processes cognitive input sequentially, not simultaneously: you can't concentrate on multiple things at once.

You just can't. it's not you, it's biology. The human brain is not wired to do that. You can't drive and text or talk on the cell phone and "pay attention" to either activity. You just can't.

That said, it has been shown that sitting at a desk or in front of a computer, staring at it (or at the professor) in desperate hopes of forcing knowledge into your brain is also not the best way to learn. Children--and by extension, adults--learn best by doing or by integrating sensory or kinetic stimulation into the learning process.

That's why you have no problem remembering not to touch the stove. Because when you did, years ago, it hurt. Permanent imprint on your brain.

It is rare for me to sit and sit and sit in front of a computer or a book for hours on end. 2-3 hours, is my limit, unless I become so engrossed in what I'm working on that I don't notice the time passing.
I think and clean. I think and paint. I think and walk. I think and bike. I think and swim. I think and cook.

Basically, I get myself started on a project or idea and then I put it on the mental back burner while I do something else. Grading is the exception to this because in order to grade, I really do have to sit down and do it.

But I still adhere to the same rule: 2-3 hours, and then I take a break to do something else. On the days when I have grading to do, I break my day up into discreet parts and make sure I have other tasks to do, to offset the amount of time I know I'll need to be focused and immobile.

Typically, it works quite well. I get large amounts of grading done quickly and efficiently, because I don't ever try to do it all at once. Broken down into small increments, the task is far more manageable and I stay focused.

Until Spring Fever hits, that is.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."