I’m glad I took my one semester course in Intel x86 assembly language, if only to know that it is not the path for me. We fortunate ones that can code fast and loose and let the compiler catch our errors should read James Mickens’ “The Night Watch“:

In conclusion, I’m not saying that everyone should be a systems hacker. GUIs are useful. Spell-checkers are useful. I’m glad that people are working on new kinds of bouncing icons because they believe that humanity has solved cancer and homelessness and now lives in a consequence-free world of immersive sprites. That’s exciting, and I wish that I could join those people in the 27th century. But I live here, and I live now, and in my neighborhood, people are dying in the streets. It’s like, French is a great idea, but nobody is going to invent French if they’re constantly being attacked by bears. Do you see? SYSTEMS HACKERS SOLVE THE BEAR MENACE.

The Case Against Multitasking

Much of academic work requires long durations of dedicated time. Writing papers or grants, for example, demand entire days, and the trickiest part of labwork is often the intense concentration needed to perform the mental juggling without error. (“…3.4 microliters of sample four goes into tube three with 4.4 microliters of primer 3433F…”) Reading scientific papers is bimodal. I half-remember a quote that they either take 10 minutes or 2+ hours to read, but the latter investment is needed if you thoroughly want to understand the work. Coding, to me, is the most extreme. My most productive schedule for big programming projects is to sit down at 5PM when most people have left the lab and work until after midnight, often taking a day or two off in between such marathons.

But so much of my other work is frenetic and fast-paced. Browsing for new articles that might be pertinent to my work, reading the news, firing off short emails, throwing together these posts even—all happen as fast as my eyes can skim and fingers can type.

Much has been written about the internet and social media and modern culture’s contribution to the destruction of society, and much of it is sensationalist linkbaity claptrap. But erosion of attention spans, to me, feels real. That’s why I found so interesting Jessica Lahey’s article in The Atlantic, “Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience.” It’s also why I resisted the many urges I felt to pop over quickly to a different browser tab. The full article is well worth the mental discipline needed to read through it in one sitting, pause, and re-read it, but here’s a long-ish quote if you’re pressed for time:

The answer lies in teaching methods that stress patience, critical thinking, and a delayed response based on deep and meaningful contemplation. In the current issue of Harvard Magazine, humanities professor Jennifer L. Roberts describes her teaching methodology in the article, “The Power of Patience.” Roberts has made a pedagogical move toward teaching that engineers, “in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” As part of that effort, she has purposefully shifted her assignments toward work that requires her student to slow down and gives them opportunities “to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”

“I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they are simply no longer available “in nature,” as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

Roberts describes a recent assignment, one designed to engage her students in immersion and sustained engagement rather than superficial memorization for a test. She asks her students to write a research paper based on one work of art. The first step in that assignment is to spend “a painfully long time looking at that object,” in this case, three full hours. “The time span,” she explains, “is explicitly designed to seem excessive,” and “crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.”

Her intention is to show students that extended attention reveals nuances and details unavailable to the casual student or rushed museum-goer. She notes that “just because you have looked at [a painting] does not mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.”