The ambitious contemplative

My precious attention!

A friend of my coined this phrase in service of a socially conscious argument, and I have turned it into an object for lament. I don’t know what to do about my attention.

1. The university at which I work is reforming almost all of its qualifications. I am in the very thick of this process in my small division. We must consult, which in this institution is a pleasingly embodied process, that involves walking to other people’s offices and talking to them. These conversations return, as they also return around university committee tables, to the question of breadth versus depth. When is it desirable to require students’ attention to range widely, lightly over a range of content, to seed their competence in the elementary fundamentals, and when should that attention be fixed more steadily on a case study, an exemplar, content that will not encompass the field but can prepare students through their learning to explore more widely later?

2. When I am with my children, it is easy on a good day to give up to them my attention: listening to their voices, studying their faces, watching their movement, sharing embraces on laps and in arms. Out of this closeness it is natural to play, to be together, to attend their wishes, to pass time in that easy state of silliness, of singing and giggling, of face-pulling and noise-making that makes hours like minutes. More frequently present, however, is the inner manager and its spider eyes, anticipating arguments, trying to offset mess, spot cleaning, tidying, sniffing the air for nappies that have fulfilled their purpose. Performing all this, of course, is the known work of mothering, the theatre on which it is easy to imagine one will be judged, a kind of domestic managerialism. It is the enemy of peace.

3. Three months with a pair of hours in which to write each week has been enough to stoke ambition, to make the time seem full of projects yet to be realised. This ambition has introduced a slow leak in the work of writing at all, since it makes small essays such as this bear the weight of aspiration of bigger work undone. The train of thought falters; eyelids close; noisy, anxious mental chatter enters the space of invention. These problems are not novel or unique. I want all the time, but have not much. I do not readily know at which work to look, when, and for how long. My precious attention, like Narcissus at his lake with his laptop. His fingers are typing, but his keyboard is tipping sideways as he leans towards the water.

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  • Jane September 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    “Narcissus at the lake with his laptop’ – precious!

    Um – at the risk of sounding totally cliched, and much to my surprise and disappointment, my hard-won, hard paid-for acquisition of time and freedom has not resulted in the productive focus or focused attention that I had hoped for. That loaded word ‘discipline’…

    But your post is making me think about ‘attention’ – in an age when demands on it are clamorous and invasive. I know I can only attend satisfactorily to one thing at a time. I cannot multi-task, never could. This I feel is construed as a deficit, by society at large and by some of my acquaintances. So I have taken to celebrating my attention-deficit. Quality rather than quantity!

    One the final leg of the return flight I watched a man on an aisle seat just ahead of me. He was watching a film and playing what looked like an advanced version of Angry Birds – simultaneously. I watched his eyes move from his lap(top) to the back-of-the-seat screen – up and down, up and down. I got the impression that he wouldn’t have been content to engage in just one activity.

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  • Megan Clayton September 29, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I’ve been thinking about the politics of multitasking this week after reading this article. I am increasingly convinced that multi-tasking is expected of those, in particular, who are working within some variety of unequal power relationship, at least in terms of the choice a person has over how they use their time. In the case of the mother of a newborn, it’s fairly straightforward: when the baby is awake, their needs are total and absolute, so everything else must be done when they’re sleeping (although the definition of “everything else” is itself political). In work relationships, the expectation that a person will multitask as a result of efficiency and discipline can function, I think, in a more sinister way. At a certain level, multitasking becomes delegation, which is not the same thing!

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