- Attention to the Text: Delay and the “ADD Generation”
The phrase, “add (Attention Deficit Disorder) generation,” has penetrated both popular and academic accounts of how millennials have been critically debilitated by the availability of hyper stimulating new media. The unifying premise of these varied accounts is that today’s college students have been so cognitively affected by digital media that their reading practices have fundamentally changed (Birkerts, Fitzpatrick). They remember less of their own accord because their capacity to retain information has been weakened by their trust in externalized repositories of memory (Mueller). Above all, the problem seems to be that the surfeit of media available to current students offers no answer key explaining how to process it. The nature of digital reading, among other things, means that readers are increasingly tempted to do anything other than the task at hand by the ease of the click and scroll, and the inescapability of pop-up distractions. In place of the “single track concentration” that characterized the pre-digital era, millennials pursue “the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling” (Birkerts, xiv)—digitally-activated reading habits that have ostensibly “fragmented” and “shrunk” attention spans.
After teaching English at the college level for a decade, I find it hard to dispute these claims. In recent years I’ve responded to changing reading practices by making drastic cuts to the amount of required reading on my course syllabi; today’s version of a course I taught five years ago contains precisely half the original assigned reading, but students today still complain more about the quantity. Even my diehard English majors who read for pleasure struggle to finish a single chapter of a novel in one sitting. Every time that one of those same students stares at the few hundred novels on the shelves in my office and exclaims that one day he or she hopes to have “a wall of books” like mine, I consider how even the bibliophiles seem to think about reading in terms of passive consumption; they envision a time in which they too will “have” books, but they never speak about the experience of reading them. Though most of the accounts of “the add generation” focus on students’ inattention, I find that the speed of accessing and sharing information over digital media perpetuates an expectation of immediate results in my students’ reading practices. It’s a mistake to call their consumption of digital media “passive” because that connotes an extended period of time in which an unfocused consumer absorbs bits and pieces of a whole. The problem, as I see it, is not just that students are unfocused, but that they have come to think of extended processes like reading solely in terms of an endpoint: to have the answer, and to have it now. [End Page 78]
Here, I offer an account of how I have transformed my teaching strategies to address this apparent problem of inattention, a problem exacerbated by the ways in which contemporary US educational practices have tended to privilege result over process. I explore how this tendency is linked to the fundamental assumptions underlying cultural generalizations about an “add generation,” namely regarding perceptions about the root of so-called inattentiveness. Commentators across a wide span of popular and academic media have casually appropriated the language of this learning disorder to explain student behavior, particularly when it comes to practices of reading and writing. But the all too prevalent conflation of add-the-psychological-condition and add-the-societal-metaphor is troubling for a number of reasons. Notably, the offhand designation of millennials as “the add generation” (Hayles 191) involves a careless appropriation of a learning disability to describe behavioral trends in the general population, the vast majority of whom do not have Attention Deficit Disorder. Such comparisons risk obscuring the nature of a real impairment. Furthermore, the comparison also risks obscuring structural problems in thinking about millennial learners. One problem with the public discourse about “add” is that it puts the focus entirely on attention, even though adhd (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as it was officially renamed two decades ago) involves an additional set of interrelated symptoms that exceed the generalized...