Nathan Heller:

“Attention as a category isn’t that salient for younger folks,” Jac Mullen, a writer and a high-school teacher in New Haven, told me recently. “It takes a lot to show that how you pay attention affects the outcome — that if you focus your attention on one thing, rather than dispersing it across many things, the one thing you think is hard will become easier — but that’s a level of instruction I often find myself giving.” It’s not the students’ fault, he thinks; multitasking and its euphemism, “time management,” have become goals across the pedagogic field. The SAT was redesigned this spring to be forty-five minutes shorter, with many reading-comprehension passages trimmed to two or three sentences. Some Ivy League professors report being counselled to switch up what they’re doing every ten minutes or so to avoid falling behind their students’ churn. What appears at first to be a crisis of attention may be a narrowing of the way we interpret its value: an emergency about where — and with what goal — we look.

This is really badly written, and I had to spend a good deal of my own attention trying to figure out what it’s saying. The quotation from Jac Mullen is hard to parse — I think he’s saying, “I have to try to teach my students that multitasking doesn’t really work, but it’s hard to get them to accept that point.” And if I understand that point correctly, then doesn’t the next sentence contradict it? If “multitasking and its euphemism, ‘time management,’ have become goals across the pedagogic field,” then aren’t teachers trying to teach something (multitasking) that Mullen has just (and rightly) said is impossible? Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe Heller needs to say that Mullen has problems convincing his students because all the other teachers are promoting multitasking. Also: since when is “time management a euphemism — “euphemism”? What does Heller think that word means? — for “multitasking”? I’ve never thought those words were synonymous. And then the following sentence, about the redesign of the SAT, has nothing to do with either multitasking or time management, so I believe some kind of transition was needed there. The most unclear sentence of all is the last one — I have no idea what it means. I don’t know what he means by “narrowing” or what the phrase “emergency about where we look” could possible denote.

What a mess!

What’s going on here? How did Heller, a professional writer, and his editors let a passage this inept make its way into print? My guess: They don’t want to say that our society is gripped by a “crisis of attention” because that’s the kind of thing that Moms and Dads and Boomers and Luddites and … well, conservatives say, so they disavow that language and try to replace it with something else, anything else. But if you look at the whole paragraph, the only conclusion you could reasonably draw is: Holy shit, we’re in the midst of a crisis of attention!