Attention Mindfulness Journal

A friend recently asked for the “attention journal” assignment I am using in my introduction to digital scholarship course (WSP101 on this blog). I’ve pasted the assignment in below. This post is a description of what I want to accomplish by the assignment and how I am conceptualizing it. I’d love your feedback and comments!

I got the idea for this assignment from reading Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart. He discusses David Levy’s (University of Washington) mindfulness assignments:

Levy created a college course called “Information and Contemplation.” In addition to teaching breath awareness to his students, Levy asked them to keep a log of their email behavior for a week, noting how their body and emotions felt, and how they were breathing while they were online.

(Rheingold, Net Smart, 73)

Here’s a brief feature on David Levy (I’d love to learn from him!) And here’s a Google Tech Talk by David Levy. While Levy is an expert on teaching technology and awareness, this semester is my first foray into this field. I backed into deciding to teach awareness after deciding to have my students use Twitter and Medium.com to blog and share all their coursework for a class this semester. I knew that I would need to confront many issues: screen fatigue, differential device access, social media concerns, identity and FERPA questions, etc. And I’d also need to explain to my students WHY I was trying to get them to spend MORE time on social media–Twitter and Medium. Most messages students receive about social media is that it is a waste of time, a threat to their future (drunken posts, etc.), merely a platform for marketing (true enough sometimes), etc. Here I was arguing against all of that.

So I wanted to begin the semester by asking students to really think about their own engagement with technology. What do they do? What do they like and dislike? How conscious are they of their own body and breathing when scrolling through a social media feed? How aware are they of their own technology practices?

I also want to put students in the driver’s seat. What are their interests in relation to their own technology use? The course will be both investigating these questions and also practicing skills related to developing personal learning networks. It is crucial, then, that students come up with their own questions about these topics. I want them to learn something useful, to find a reason that this class will help them in their own learning goals.

Here is the assignment I developed. It is largely borrowed from an assignment in a course titled “Contempletive Practice” taught by David Ambuel and Angela Pitts at University of Mary Washington. I left the terms of the assignment deliberatedly vague: what counts as “technology use,” for example. Phones? Laptops? Video games? Students asked these questions in class, and I turned the questions back to them to answer. They also asked “am I doing it right?” in various ways and I consistently told them that there is no right and wrong in this observation of themselves. They also asked “what am I trying to find out?” (which is a great question, really), and I bounced that back to them as well–“what do you want to learn about your own attention/technology combination?”

I haven’t yet seen their blog posts, but I’m excited to discover what they made of this assignment.


Here’s the assignment:

Attention Log

Throughout Week 2 of the course, you should keep a regular “attention journal” to notice how your attention moves while you are online. This exercise is to help you become more aware of how your mind–in combination with the Web–works. There is no right or wrong way to place your attention for this exercise. My hope is that you will simply observe your own attentional practice.

In order to do so, please keep a log of your engagement with online media for one week. Each session should be a minimum of 15 minutes, and you should observe at least 5 sessions.

As you surf, or do homework online, or scroll through social media, remind yourself to notice what you are thinking, how you are breathing, what position your body is in, if you are feeling anything (emotionally or otherwise). Again, there is no right or wrong answer to any of this–just mindfulness of what you do. In making entries to your journal, you want to strive for brevity, accuracy, and precision.

Make a separate entry for each session.  Use the entries to describe your practice in detail, but you do not need to be repetitive, i.e., you may combine similar traits.

For each session, respond to the following questions:

1. Date,
2. Physical Space and means of access to Web
3. Duration of session,
4. What occurred,
5. How you noted it,
6. What happened to it,
7. What worked,
8. What did not work,
9. Other comments.

This assignment is gratefully adapted from a meditation journal assignment: http://meditation.umwblogs.org/meditation-journal/

Blog Post & Tweet

After students complete the journal itself, they then are asked to write their first blog post of the semester (week 2.5) summarizing and narrating what they learned from the journal. They then tweet the link to the post to the class hashtag, so everyone can read it.

Why should students take my course?

Yesterday a small group of folks here on campus gathered in the Faculty Alcove of the library to watch the first webinar for Connected Courses. The Webinar featured  Mike Wesch, Cathy Davidson, and Randy Bass, and was FANTASTIC.

What was so great about it? The speakers were fantastic: succinct, inspiring, on topic, smart smart smart. But what really made the event special was that I got to watch it with a group of folks all engaged in helping learning happen in different ways: one professor of psychology, one of Spanish, one specialist in digital scholarship, and two undergraduate students not enrolled in any of my courses.

It was AMAZING to discuss teaching and learning with such a diverse group of folks who all really care. The students, especially, challenged me to think differently, to question some of my own assumptions, and to try things that sound pretty scary to me (like an anonymous chat backchannel during class discussion. Scary!)

After the webinar, we were asked to respond to a specific writing prompt (ahem, another demonstration of good pedagogy!) Here’s the writing prompt this post intends to address:

So what is the real “why” of your course? Why should students take it? How will they be changed by it? What is your discipline’s real “why”? Why does it matter that students take __________ courses or become _________ists? How can digital and networked technologies effectively support the real why of your course?

Mike Wesch made a comment that spoke to my course’s “why”:

WSP101, the course I am focusing on for this project, is an introduction to a program in self-directed learning in which students can choose to design their own learning programs (within the limits of the course offerings of the college, and their study abroad and internship experiences). It’s a really exciting program, and offers students who are both ambitious and motivated an opportunity to tailor their experience at our small college to suit their own goals. So, in a way, the “why” is easy for this course.

Why take this course? To learn how to decide for yourself what you need to learn and to practice some ways to achieve that learning.

I think the Whittier Scholars program fits easily into the connected learning concept. I am just updating the methods the program has long used by encouraging students to build their own personal learning networks on Twitter and Medium, and other places.

But another comment yesterday really got me thinking:

Whittier Scholars, for all its wonderful flexibility and clear basis in students’ own interests, can also seem a bit vague or difficult to evaluate. Sometimes, that can lead students to feel unclear about what constitutes accountability. This is something I need to really work on.

The class this semester will be doing self- and peer-evaluation quite a bit. In fact, they will be writing ocassional narrative evaluations of their own participation and submitting their self-assigned grades to me. I, then, will respond to their narratives and suggested grades. Grading, in other words, will be a dialogue. I hope this will help. We shall see.

Addendum:

I wrote all that, and then I saw this comic on my Twitter feed. This is so true and right and good that I can’t help posting it here:

A little help from my friends

The semester is about to begin again, and my teaching skills feel rusty. It’s been nearly 10 months since I taught a course. And while I loved every moment of my precious sabbatical and all the new research I got done started, I’m nervous that I’ve forgotten how to teach. 

As usual, at this time of year, I am both massively over-prepared (I’ve been redecorating my course websites for a week) and woefully underprepared (where are those course rosters, anyway?)

But today I was reminded that the joy of teaching/learning at a liberal arts college is that classes are really just rooms full of people who get together to help each other out. All the worry about “being prepared” goes away the minute I step into the room and meet the students. Then, it’s all about learning to connect with them. Helping them over their fear of me (will I be an ogre professor, bent on failing everyone? They don’t know.) Helping them understand why this course might be valuable to them, how it might fit into or, better still, transform their understanding of the world. Helping them (sometimes) understand why this course may not be the best choice for them right now.

Helping. 

Why do I hear this word so rarely in relation to teaching? 

And I hear it even more rarely in relation to students. Because the real truth is that the students help me as much as I help them. They help me discover what matters, and how to teach it to them. Concepts that I labor for hours to get into prose emerge from seminar discussions in minutes sometimes. Learning happens in the room because–if I listen closely–the students teach me to teach.

They teach me to teach. 

And sometimes, in the best of all moments, they teach each other, and skip me–the unnecessary middle man. 

So, here’s to another semester, beginning againing. And here’s to relearning how to teach a whole new group of folks, so we can all unlearn our fears of each other and discover how to help each other open ourselves to the possibility of new learning.

Gosh, I love my job.