Tag Archives: academia

Laptops in the classroom and multi-tasking

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The case for banning laptops in the classroom is a blog by Dan Rockmore in the New Yorker on the surprising proposal by one of the lecturers to ban  laptops in programming classes  at Dartmouth.  I say ‘surprising’, but it doesn’t actually surprise me, since I’ve noticed that of all people, programmers and other exceptional thinkers in just about any field tend to regard notebooks or conversation as a more appropriate tool than computers for doing conceptual work (see earlier posts of mine praising [real] notebooks and even record cards).

But the main point about laptops in class is that they’re distracting. The message of one study on the subject “aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.” What I like about the guy that proposed the ban, apart from the fact that this blog adds to my growing list of articles busting the myth of multitasking is that he’s not blaming the youth of today for being distractible, but acknowledges that laptops distract him as well, so why would it be any different for the people he teaches? 

At a conference last year I looked round the lecture room during one of the presentations, and noticed that many of the big-name researchers, due to give papers later in the conference, had their laptops open. Some were blogging, some were tweeting, some were rejigging their PowerPoint presentations, others were editing papers, checking emails or on Facebook. One was googling a term that the presenter had just used, another was looking up the book that they had just referred to on a slide. One was checking the football results, another was actually watching a game. Oh yes, and one was organizing his albums in iPhoto.

Remember, these are professors I’m talking about (in the colloquial sense of high-end academics), not adolescent undergrads. Coming from the ballet world where a teacher wouldn’t let a bunch of 6-year olds behave like this, I was pretty appalled. But what appalled me was the lack of leadership and sense of collective responsibility. I wanted the conference organizer or the person chairing the session to stand up and tell the room to get a grip, put their laptops away, and give the person at the front 20 minutes of their attention for god’s sake. As for tweeting and blogging about conferences while you’re in them, isn’t this a form of Facebook-style snap-and-post narcissism? Look at me! I was there! I heard this! It was really cool! But while you were typing that, your focus necessarily drifted from the next few sentences, if it was ever there much in the first place.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the lecture as a form. I like lectures. People who speak well can inspire. The talk I attended by Ken Robinson  eight years ago still inspires me, and remains a model to aspire to. But it’s a relational thing – lectures depend on the attention of the audience as well as the attention-grabbing skills of the lecturer.  And if lecturers themselves can’t keep their minds off football, funny kitten pictures or email, then don’t expect students to fare any better.

Of flutter echo, pectoriloquy, music and badminton

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There’s been a strange synchronicity between my reading, work and social lives this week. Last night,  my badminton partner – a sound engineer – dropped the racket cases on the floor at the side of the court just before we went on.

“Ah, flutter echo!” he said.

“Sorry?”

“Flutter echo. Listen”

He dropped the cases again. I listened. The slap of the vinyl cases hitting the floor reverberated back and forth from wall to wall like a computerised tap delay. It was mesmerizing.

“You can measure the size of a room with flutter echo.”

And with that we got on with the game, but for the next hour, every time there was a loud enough sound (like when one of the staff burst a balloon left over from a children’s party that had been in the sports hall that afternoon), all I could hear was flutter echo. I’ve been in that court many times, yet this was the first time I’ve ever noticed the echo, or been able to give it a name.

The story has a strange resonance (excuse the deliberate pun) with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne. Subtitled ‘cultural origins of sound reproduction’, it’s a fascinating exploration of the history of listening, and in particular, the development of medical  techniques of  listening (through the stethoscope) as a means of diagnosis. Through such techniques, hearing – not just sight – became means for us of measuring and analysing the spatial.

All of which underlines the blindingly obvious, which is that you hear what you’ve learned to hear, and what you later hear or listen to changes the world that you attend to. My perception of the leisure centre where I play badminton is forever changed by flutter echo. I am more alert to its dimensions, its geometry, and to the hardness of its surfaces.

Translate this into the world of music (or indeed, any kind of aesthetic appreciation), and the notion of ‘innate musicality’ begins to sound slightly absurd.  We’d be worried if children grew up as ‘innate wine-tasters’. I’m not disputing that some people might be disposed for one reason or another to be particularly good at or enthused by music, but if you can teach me to hear flutter echo at my age in a split second, then think what you could teach children.

New choreomusicology article

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Music, dance and the total art work: choreomusicology in theory and practice is an article just out by Paul Mason in Research in Dance Education that pretty much sums up where we are now in that field.  I’m feeling especially smug, because I’d actually read it by the time that Paul had posted a comment on my blog drawing attention to it. Looking at his biog makes me feel ashamed at my miserable attempts at interdisciplinarity. Anthropology, neuroscience, dance, music, and writing in three languages – now that’s impressive.

Desperately seeking (A Pattern Language)

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It’s common to hear people say “These days, you can find it all on the internet” or “You can find everything on Google”.  It’s true in principle, but that’s like saying you can play anything on the piano: yes you can, if you have the technique and the repertoire.

If anything is proof of this for me, it’s my desperate search for a book that I’d come across before on…and that’s my first problem. What was it a book on, exactly? I remembered that the book in question was fascinating, and had been referred to by thousands of authors and webpages. It was a classic. In its own way, it was one of those books like Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions that had influenced an entire generation.  I was beguiled by it, and could remember the illustrations. What was remarkable was the apparent universality of the principles, the enormous scope of the subject.  Some months ago, I nearly bought it, but not quite. Unfortunately, I didn’t put it on my Amazon wishlist, or save it on Delicious, or blog about it.

I know that it had something to do with architecture, something to do with design, something to do with landscape gardening. I seem to remember finding it through a post on Understanding By Design that I read on Profhacker,  but retracing my steps led nowhere. I used every search term that I’ve used above, but got nowhere.

So this morning, I started again in a more systematic way, searching for classic books on design, and went through the lists I found until finally, the title shouted out from the page: A Pattern Language.  My memory is acute: I could remember the shape and sound of the title, and that it  was a collocation of two words not usually seen together that had something to do with design and structure. But the title is so unmemorable that I even had to scroll up again just now to remember what  it was.

I’m posting this to remind myself of the book (this is often what I use my blog for), even though I’ve just bought it from Amazon, but also as a very short essay on the myth of Google, the myth that ‘you can find everything on Google’. The truth is that you can look for anything on Google, but what your looking turns up is predicated on your ability to search, and the terms and knowledge that you bring to it.  And if that’s true of Google, how much truer must it be of any kind of research?

 

 

Latest research in music perception & cognition

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If there’s one area of music research that really grabs me, it’s music perception & cognition. With astonishing speed, considering it only took place at the end of August, the abstracts from the 11th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition are available online, all 95 pages of them. This is like a massive variety performance of all the top stars of the MP&C world.  One of my favourite papers is  ‘The Social Side of Avian Movement to Music’ by Aniruddh Patel, John  Iversen & Irena Schulz. To cut a long story short, the question is whether parrots dance differently if there’s another human in the room that’s dancing to a different beat through headphones – and the answer seems to be, yes they do – they adapt their dancing to co-ordinate somewhat with the human.

Congratulations, Simon Singh

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Delighted to see that Simon Singh has finally won his libel case. It is plain wrong that Singh should ever have had to risk bankruptcy and his career. I’m not even going to go into the details on here, in case the British Chiropractic Association’s lawyers are trawling the net for other people to take to court.

The UK is a strange and worrying place these days: Professor Nutt was silenced for trying to speak some sense on drugs, based on evidence, knowledge and experience, Singh gets it in the neck for questioning evidence in complementary medicine that affects all of us. Is it for this that the government wants to send 50% of young people to University – to end up being punished for critical evaluation and questioning, the very things for which one is rewarded as a student?