Chronicle: Attention!

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Amy Benson Brown, who directs the author-development program at Emory University’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, observes of scholarly writing habits:

As a writer and editor who coaches academic writers, I’ve witnessed how tricky that juggling act can be, especially in recent years. Besides teaching, doing research, and carrying out administrative responsibilities, many professors maintain relationships with foundations, work with community groups, and make themselves available as experts to the media. In the whirlwind of professional life today, successful writing clearly depends on the skillful management of attention as much as the quality of insight or research. I wonder if it is harder than ever now to be a good steward of the finite resource that is our attention.

Winifred Gallagher’s recent exploration of psychological research on this topic, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (Penguin Press, 2009), relays information with interesting implications for academics. Multitasking doesn’t work, particularly for cognitively demanding activities like research and writing. Uninterrupted focus for substantial periods remains vital to accomplishing anything requiring synthesis, insight, and articulation.

The good news is that most of us actually are not suffering from the attention-deficit disorder that we fear may soon render us unable to find our way home from the library. If we disconnect from our electronic devices and stubbornly set aside regular times to focus, our shriveled capacity for concentration will once again unfurl and flourish. Even better news is that our attention functions most productively in relatively small windows of time, like an hour and a half. After 90 minutes, we need a change of focus to keep the quality of our attention high.

The article “Attention, Please! Your Book Is Calling” is available on line to subscribers. Emory University’s Author Development Program in the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence is worth visiting.

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