The B-L “YKWI…” Effect

Back at PTS, my friend Bryan took his comprehensive exams a year ahead of me. When I set myself to “going to school” on his preparation, he gave me a heads-up on an experience to try to cultivate: that thing that happens when your head is processing several streams of facts at once, all the time, probably under terrific pressure, and semi-random creative syntheses are taking shape, until everything seems to be connected in significant ways to everything else. Elements of your subject matter combine unpredictably, not only with one another, but with your life: with cereal boxes, with street names, with chess, with love, with birdsong. In this mystic, calorie-consuming, emotionally precarious state of exam preparation (you’re probably taking a lot of long walks), you find yourself constantly turning to the poor people in your life who are not your classmates and saying, “You know what’s interesting…” (It’s not, of course, but this is the least of the collatoral damage that they’ll suffer at your hands before you graduate.) I would later come to think of this synthesis-producing state of mind as the Bibb-Lester “You Know What’s Interesting…” Effect, or B–L “YKWI…” You know: it combines percolation, simmering, marinading, pressure-cooking, and that cooking that kids do together when they stir a little of everything into a bowl and dare one another to take big bites.

In my own exam preparation, I worked towards this B–L “YKWI…” state of mind, mostly by overlapping and staggering my topics for study. I tried to create conditions for the unpredictable joining-up of random bits of understanding, including the time to follow them up and sift the serendipitous wheat from the delusional chaff. Although individual elements of my written exams came under some fire at my orals, I earned praise for several examples of creative synthesis.

This all came to my mind while I read this piece (h/t Akma), featuring a study that shows some better learning outcomes for online students than for traditional in-classroom students. The study pointed out that students report spending more time on an online course than on a traditional course (I see that Targuman also took a special interest in this bit).

I would like to see the details on the questions and answers about time, because I have my own untested hypothesis about time spent on an online course. In a traditional course, students tend to “chunk” their study time into a small number of large pieces, and the course itself already encourages this by meeting for a small number of large blocks of time. Study time is starkly isolated from life-time, from the rest of life. But if the course and its homework are taking place on discussion boards, blogs, Chat, YouTube, Wikis, and perhaps Twitter and Facebook, then it’s possible that students will find themselves addressing the subject matter the way they address their other social, collaborative undertakings: they may assimilate their study time into the whole of their life-time. If so, then maybe—this is my untested hypothesis—maybe they will be more prone to synthesize the subject matter with the thinking they are already doing about politics, about religion, about church, about nutrition, about dog training, about diaper-changing, about whatever. Maybe they’ll be more susceptible to the rigorous delights of the B-L “YKWI…” Effect.

Not that I celebrate the fragmentation of attention. Okay, yes, actually, it is that I am tempted to celebrate the fragmentation of attention. After all, haven’t I told my students a hundred times, “Don’t try to do your reading and writing in four-hour marathons the night before class. Break it up into littler chunks, give yourself time to reflect, to simmer, to percolate.” What I am saying at those times is, “Fragment your attention a little, why don’t you?”

What do you think? Have you your own experience with the B-L “YKWI Effect? Have you found your own ways of acheiving or encouraging the unpredictable synthesis of your course’s subject matter with the random constellation of one’s interests and concerns? Do you think that the fragmentation of attention encouraged by social learning marks the end of attentive student work as we know it, or that it might have the balancing potential goods that I find myself hoping it does?

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2 Responses

  1. It is interesting that you call it a fragmentation of attention. I imagine you do this through your professor lens, however, through my student lens it seems your theory is not emphasizing fragmentation but a bringing together. We are taught socially and through traditional schooling to segment our lives. (very male and very modern) But if a professor is able to add course content to the mediums already present in a students life it brings the student’s worlds (school, work, play, family, etc) together in a much more potent way. To all professors, I implore you to vary your platforms and learn the mediums your students use. They will be smarter for it and like you more!

  2. I was at the beach when this came out and missed it somehow. Thanks for the by-line. As you perhaps expected, I immediately started trying to parse and translate b’l ykwi in various semitic dialects. 🙂 That final aleph is a problem.

    I definitely think you’re right about the rise of these epiphanic moments of connection and “unpredictably synthesis.” One result of the technological environment is that more of these moments can be “captured” rather than float in and out of our heads. One can post a quick Twitter or blog entry with a Youtube video and a few words of explanation, and there you go. It might spark something in someone else or it might not, but it’s there.

    Connect these various captured streams through RSS, Delicious, etc., and you’re talking about emerging social knowledge.

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