Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Do I Get Bored when I Read? (a student asks) & Mindfulness Training

61º ~ yes, 61º on Jan. 19, you gotta love the mid-South, we'll get back to our "normals" of around 50º for a high for the rest of the week, but we're headed close to 70º today ~ while I know warming trends are not a good thing, I'm going to put this one in the short-term plus column

This semester, I asked my Creative Writing I students to email me any questions they have about writing. I did this to A) establish an email connection with each student and B) to help guide my prep for the semester. In general, I've gotten a lot of "How much do writers make?" "How long does it take to get a book published?" "What can I do with creative writing if I don't want to teach?" and "What do I do about writer's block?" type questions. Remember, these are first-time creative writing students, and community college students as well, meaning many of them won't have been exposed to information about the writing life. All of these are the questions I expected and have a lot of experience covering in class.

However, one question sent me rocking back on my heels. A very enthusiastic student asked "Why do I get bored when I read?" and "What do I need to read to become a better writer?" Like many of my students, he has a great desire to write but has little background in reading. He sees this gap and is concerned, but as he's tried to read in the past, he's gotten "bored." (This sets him apart from a lot of the other students who want to write but don't enjoy reading...without an awareness of that lack of enjoyment.)

I've been mulling over this question, and I don't have a definitive answer for this one student, because I don't know him well enough yet, but I have one major guess.

Our 21st century, technology-based society does not cultivate the enjoyment of reading. When asked what they do in their spare time, over 60% of my class (males and females) report playing video games. The other 40% doesn't have spare time because of family responsibilities, jobs, and school. Now, I'm not a rabid hater of video games. I think that some of them pull in the imagination in creative ways, and I do believe that we all need to have some things we simply do for "fun." What I do see, however, is that gaming and surfing the net require the opposite of skills needed for enjoyable reading.

Reading fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction requires flexible imagination muscles. It requires the ability to inhabit the life of another person and understand it (empathy), and the best writing lures us into that imaginative act and feeds a human need. Sadly, as our world has turned toward technology and speed of information, there are fewer and fewer vehicles for creating empathy through imagination. (As the student asking the question is a young man, closer to a traditional student than a non-traditional one, I also wonder if "teaching to the test" has caused some of this as well.)

My thoughts might not be completely clear, but I don't think this student has taken the time with his reading to take it in and find pleasure from the experience of empathy. I say this because over the last decade of teaching, I have definitely noticed a decrease in the ability of my students to read something as simple as an assignment sheet and retain that information. They "read" by running their eyes over the words and comprehending them in that moment, but not by "taking in" the information communicated by the words.

All of this hits me at a time when I've taken up mindfulness training (in a non-formal way). I first learned of mindfulness when I was a college student in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and I was assigned  one of Thich Nhat Hahn's books on mindfulness. This practice requires slowing down and actually being in the moment. There's no way I can sum it up well here, but it is all about "the now." Eckhart Tolle is a writer discussing this topic who many more may have heard of these days, thanks to Oprah.

In any case, I've been struck by how the practice of mindfulness, really being and seeing each moment "I am washing this dishes. This is how it feels to wash the dishes..etc." correlates with the practice of reading. We have to give our whole attention to the words, body & mind, and when we don't, we comprehend and retain less. This proves true in my own life. I have a bad habit of trying to multi-task while I read. I might be trying to eat while I read, which requires juggling silverware, dishes, food, etc. while reading. Every time I do this, I realize I'm less engaged with the text before me. When I do focus on the words and read with a pen in my hand, then I get the full experience of empathy, of enjoyment, of new thoughts, and/or of gaining self-knowledge. The reading fulfills me.

So, back to my student, if I, a woman in mid-life not brought up by computers, texting, and a "need for speed" in all things, struggle with mindfully engaging with reading, what a greater struggle people of my student's generation might have.

Again, I don't mean this to be a technology bashing post. I do think we need a greater balance with how we use technology and more awareness of how our minds are changed (how we interact with information) because of that technology.

In the meantime, one of my goals for my class will be to show students how to become fully immersed in a text and to not get least not all of the time.

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