Multitasking Leads to Narrative Deprivation

Multitasking Student

She was looking down, a smile on her face, hands beneath the desk where she sat.

“You know,” I rehearsed the aforementioned posture aloud, “A student in such a position obviously has other concerns on her mind.” Redfaced, my pupil smiled sheepishly. Busted, she slowly placed her smart phone in her handbag. Facebook or phone messages or texts drive student attention, no matter the professor, the material, or the course. At times, a classroom instructor is no match for immediate electronic connections.

Some teachers mandate no electronics in class. Others require all cell phones be placed in the middle of the room, retrieved when the bell rings. Still more professors do not care, saying that the student will pay for their inattention through course grades. I know of a minority of instructors who encourage computer use, relying on the surfing exploits of young minds to bring world-wide-web insights immediately to the classes’ attention. And depending on which researcher you talk to, access to the internet is either making us stupid or brilliant.

“Multitasking” has been the title of an assignment I give to masters level students; I’m anxious to gain students’ reactions to the issue. In their reading, multitasking was referred to as a myth,  twitching, a cocktail party, brain-splitting, and the shallows. They were to apply a Christian point-of-view to the concept, identifying three biblical-theological insights of their own. They then had to engage the general idea of multitasking within their own ministry contexts.

The reflective questions included:

• How does multitasking impact you as a minister?

• How does multitasking impact your ministry?

• How does multitasking impact those with whom and for whom you minister?

• How do the common grace results of research impact how we think about multitasking?

• What current cultural assumptions are necessary for a positive response to multitasking?

• How should multitasking assumptions be biblically accepted or countered?

• What is the result of multitasking? Identify what may be gained or lost.

The resultant papers and classroom discussion were telling. Most of the students saw problems with multitasking, but still accepted the practice as a necessary evil in ministry. Some days after the classroom discussion, I saw the future of multitaskers through the writing of Jessica Helfand, author of Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture. Jessica says,

The impatience with which people have come to expect everything to be delivered to them is a terrifying prospect.

The Yale graphic design critic calls the phenomenon “short attention span theater” and says it’s amplified by the digital gadgets most of us carry these days. Her students are constantly engaged in multimedia multitasking — reading, working on essays and checking Facebook every 10 minutes.

”You just have to wonder to what degree are they actually assimilating anything. And my big concern is how deep anybody can go if they’re spread so thin, if they skim everything.”

This skimming generation is going to be producing the media we consume, which Helfand calls both an opportunity and a challenge. She says,

“A friend of mine actually referred to this recently as, this is the culture of narrative deprivation.”

My online media guru and I were updating my website recently. During the phone conversation Ryan had me focus on one of my essays. He then read the essay as some readers might read it online. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had trouble keeping up with Ryan’s reading even though I was looking right at the words. The reason? According to Ryan’s research, readers of an online blog will literally skip through the article, skimming words as they go.

My communication professor nodded her head as I recounted the experience. “Imagine all the children who are missing nursery rhymes, poetry, tall tales, classic stories, and morality tales,” she lamented.

“Narrative deprivation” is exactly the problem.

Consumed by the cell phone under the table, I despair my student may become story-less.

We have no reason to carry on a great narrative because we know no stories to tell.

Mark loves stories, tells stories, buys stories, reads stories, knowing that stories can only be told because The Story exists. Mark’s students love to hear his stories whenever, wherever he teaches.


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  1. Great post! I did not skim but read through all of it. I find this article to be very true when it comes to my generation. I am just thankful that when “some teachers [at CBC]mandate no electronics in class” that it does not include recorders haha.

  2. So upset…depriving stdents of there electronics! and making them hear nursery stories…cmon’ ::sfx of smartphone::: excuuuuuse me. CYA got important things :::insert status update message sent::: to C to.

    😉 ah we can only hope that maybe someday young people will rediscover stories. Perhaps, they will meander over to see a reason for kindness in Aesop’s Fable of the “Lion and the Mouse”. Then as they turn the page they may weep as they watch sacrificial love demonstrated in the true “Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson. Be heartened. I took my IUPUI class for extra credit to see a professional storyteller and they went on their own with no bonus attached to see the next event.

  3. I love this blog and find it so true!! Stories have always been an important part of learning for me and still are! In conversations with folks who are constantly “fingering” a “techy device”, I can stop speaking and they are unaware because they are invested in their manual task or I am “boring” them!? :>(
    H-m-m?? Multitasking takes on many faces — hopefully interacting with an intelligent spoken/written word — will enhance the “listener” in us all.

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