Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Murky Place

Hell is, according to Macbeth. My mind sometimes, too.

Theaters seem to share the dimness, and during rehearsals, utter chaos, at least to my untrained eyes.

We ran through the play on stage today, and the whole time, someone from the scenery gang was screwing pieces of wood to the front of the stage in a sort of messy picket fence effect, and then taking them down. Lights were going on and off, sound effects were going or not.

I was sitting, trying to notice things to help the actors with notes; next to me was a director type, also trying to notice things. Now, I really should have had my script (though as a lit person, I tend to call it a text, not a script, but since I'm visiting in a theater...) on me, because one of the actors still doesn't have his lines down well and needed prompting. But the director is really responsible for that, right? Except every thirty seconds, one or another student, tech or scenery person was interrupting her to ask a question, so she was only semi-following, semi-paying attention, semi-answering questions. (This may be how theater is, or just how working with high school students is. I don't have the theater experience to know, really.)

If it had been my show (and it's not), I would have needed to have people wait, and then taken a short break between acts to answer questions. I just don't multi-task well. It took me until about my fourth year in college to really understand that, to know it in a Platonic way (in which to know the good is to do the good). And suddenly, everything changed; my grades went up, I got stuff done, I learned a second language when I needed to.

I don't think I'm unique in not multi-tasking well; I think most people don't multi-task well, and I wish that my students would learn that earlier rather than later.

But a lot of people tell me they multi-task really well. If you teach, you've seen it in class: the student playing sudoko, texting, whatever, claiming that they're multi-tasking and paying good attention to the discussion. But they aren't participating in the discussion, and have to ask me to repeat instructions all the time.

And the people who try to multi-task in cars, talking on cell phones, doing their hair, shaving, reading, and semi-driving everyone else off the road? Yep, I had a closer than I'd like moment with a car the other day (while I was riding my bike), and lo and behold, the driver was chatting on the phone.

There's concentration and focus, and there's half-assing one's way around, and I prefer concentration and focus. I need it to get pretty much anything done. Yes, I can have quiet music on in the background for some reading, but not even that for really heavy theory. But if I really want to do good work and get it done, I have to focus on just that for at least a few minute solid.

Only when I know something really well can I see a whole picture, gather the scene and know where things are working and where not. Gaming is one place I've managed that, teaching is another. But interrupt my flow and I lose the focus I need. I would really need to have that feeling about a production were I to try to direct; it's just all complicated and intertwined.

I kept wondering if we wouldn't have been more effective at working through the play if people had been more able to focus on doing just that. Yes, it means a lot of people sit around waiting, and I know that can be frustrating and tiring. But maybe we wouldn't have had to do and redo some things because we'd have done them better the first or second time.

Or maybe it's just me? Maybe things were working effectively for most of the other people there?


  1. I would guess that some of the was related to the high school part of all of this.

    As for multi-tasking: There are some things I can multi-task very well, but not everything. My ADD mind jumps around a lot on its own, so I sometimes need multiple stimuli. Having said that, when I need to really focus on one thing (as much as possible) I try to have some sort of white noise. If it is music, it cannot have words or I will be distracted. For those moments when my mind jumps to something else, I keep note cards near by to jot down notes so that I don't lose the thought.

    So, I don't know if that makes me good at multi-tasking or not. I know plenty of people who are terrible at it. I don't think that is a problem. In many ways, it seems saner than the way my mind works. Or, more practical at least.

    I see the same thing with my students. Many think they are much better at multi-tasking than they are. I don't mind if someone doodles or knits or does something similar that doesn't require as much active thinking. I understand how kinetic activities like that help some of us focus on class discussion. I doodle while taking notes and it increases my focus. but, texting and suduko and the rest take more active thought and, I feel, truly do distract students from the academic task at hand.

    As for drivers - I'm amazed at the things people try to do while driving.

  2. Even I can multi-task at unimportant things that don't require much concentration.

    But for things that involve other people, especially if I'm in some way responsible to them (as a student in a class discussion is responsible to other students), then no, I have to focus.

  3. Well, the difference is probably that those sort of things actually help me focus. That's the weird ADD part of it all. There really is a need for multiple stimuli.

    The best way I can explain it is to say that where some people might stop doing one activity to talk (say, in a meeting or seminar), I actually function better doing both at once. I normally don't because I know that others will think it is rude, but it isn't that uncommon of a phenomenon among those of us with attention-deficit disorders.

    When I teach, I normally deal with this by taking notes on what my students say. When there are pauses I sketch out dividers on the page or make connecting lines to the things students are saying. It takes care of my need to keep busy physically (and allows me to visualize the discussion) and, as an added bonus, my students see me taking notes and attending to their class participation.

    I do the same thing in meetings. Unfortunately this means I often get asked to keep the minutes of the meeting because I take such thorough notes. the note taking does little to nothing to inhibit my participation in the conversation. I can take notes about what I'm saying as I say it.