91: San Francisco State University Experiments with Distraction-Free Zones w/ Dr. David Peña-Guzman

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Dr. David Peña-Guzman, Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, joined the podcast to talk about creating distraction-free zones on campus.

Really quick before we get into the show today. At Helix, we recently completed a comprehensive research study on what high growth institutions do differently. Turns out they have the right academic programs in their online portfolio, provide a fantastic online experience to an increasingly demanding adult student and can cost effectively scale through powerful brand, creative marketing and media strategies. What pieces of this puzzle are you missing? Visit Helix educationcom grow to learn how helix is online enrollment growth accelerator can help you join the ranks of Helix partners who grew their online program enrollments by seventy six percent on average last year. That's Helix educationcom grow. Over a time, I got the sense that the technology was taking over my reading habits almost without my control, and so I began thinking about what it would be like for a university to create a course that target it thought. You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show of welcome back to enrollment growth university. A proud member of the connect Edu podcast network, I'm Aericleson AVP of marketing at Helix Education, and we're here today with Dr David Paigne Kuzman, assistant professor in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University. David, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Really excited to talk with you today about creating distraction free zones on campus. Before we dig into that, David, can you give the listeners a little bit better understanding of both San Francisco State and your rule there? Yes, so, San Francisco State is a state university, part over the CSU system, and I was hired here two years ago as an assistant professor to teach courses in a variety of fields surrounding the humanistic disciplines. In particular, I was hired to teach courses in philosophy, theory and, to some degree, the history of science, which is one of my areas of specialization, and the specific department and that I was hired in, which is a school of humanities and liberal studies, is one of the earliest interdisciplinary programs in California. So it has a very long history and it was one of the first institutional places, at least in San Francisco, that specialized in experimental teaching and interdisciplinary pedagogy. And when I came here I was told that I could experiment quite a bit with pedagogical practices, and the course that I'll be talking about today is sort of the first attempt on my part to think outside the box in terms of how higher education, higher at in general, can create spaces that counteract some of what I take to be some of the noxious effects of information technology. And so the idea is that through this class, I will offer a platform for my students to relate to books in particular, in a way that is unique and hopefully valuable for them. Yeah, it's such fascinating work that you're doing so early in your tenure there at San Francisco State. Yes, please, let's dive in, because in terms of doing experimental things, you are certainly doing that. Give us some high level background on the attempt of this course designed to help students rediscover uninterrupted reading in a very distractable technological world. Well, if I'm being honest. I think the course was born out of an autobiographical or reflect reflective insight on my part. You know, I'm...

...in my early S. I am certainly older than the majority of my students, but not significantly older, and so I relate to them in in a number of ways still, and one of them is that, by many criteria, I share the information technology framework in which many of them grew up. And I found myself, this is independently of this class, before I even proposed it, I found myself struggling with my own reading, with my own reading practices as a professor where, you know, I would be teaching a traditional class, I would be doing my homework somewhere outside of the university, and I would find myself having my experience of reading systematically interrupted by information technology. A random text message from a friend, push notification on Facebook, checking Instagram, whatever the case might be, and over time I got the sense that the technology was taking over my reading habits almost without my control, and so I began thinking about what it would be like for a university to create a course that targeted that, because I suspected that I wasn't the only one having this experience, and I talked with a number of undergraduates in other classes and I realize that this really is a pervasive phenomenon, especially for people who are eighteen too, you know, early s maybe even beyond that. And the course really grew out of this realization that I needed to do something to counteract the Force of distraction that I felt information technology was injecting into my very habits of reading. Really appreciate you share hearing your story and yes, similarly aged to you, I struggle with the same thing and even lately I've been making bartering agreements with myself that yes, in between Netflix shows, in between that five second pause between I have to read a chapter of a Walter Isaacs and biography before I can progress. So, like you, I'm similarly trying to create that governance, which is fascinating and I'm excited to talk about the ways that you're doing it in this specific course. But just to reclarify, this is not, you know, technology is bad type scenario. In fact, the first part of each class period of yours actually incorporates technology. This is more of a broader attempt to understand how to selfgovern and remove distraction at a high level. Correct yeah, and I think that's very important to clarify. I think technology is quite important in education at all levels and in my case I've incorporated various kinds of technologies into various kinds of courses, and so the target of the cores really isn't technology in itself, it is the distraction that specifically information technologies generate when they are allowed to infiltrate into our every day at any time, independently of the tasks that we're engaged in. And so, for example, incorporate technology into this class in a number of ways. Some of them are really traditional. For example, I communicate with my students using I learn. I use that platform, which is similar to blackboard in other places. Do send emails to share readings, etc. At the beginning of each class. I also use technology in the form of power point. The way each class is organized is we meet for about five and a half hours each time and we read a book for four hours together in silence in a room. And the best way to sort of approach a particular text, on my view, is to have some sense of the cultural, historical and...

...political background or context in which that text is situated. So in the first thirty minutes. I always give formal lecture using powerpoint that tries to contextualize a particular work. So, to give one example, this week we're going to be reading a book called the ethics of ambiguity by the French feminist Simon de Bovoir, and I will be in the class by talking for about thirty minutes about her upbringing about the Parisian context in which the book was produced, talking about her relationship to the existentialist movement and connecting this work to other of her publications, such as the the second sex. And so in these lectures that open each meeting I will use images, I will use math up sometimes I will use videos from Youtube to provide students upper a specific framework through which to approach the text that we then jump into as a class. But I think it really matters a lot for me that this is not a technology ban and after we do this framing exercise, we still incorporate technologies in other ways. The first time that we met, the first meeting that we had at the beginning of the semester, one of the students recommended that we create time on blocks for reading so that we don't just read for four hours, which seems like a very long time to maintain focused attention and as a result of the suggestion, which I thought was great, we decided to incorporate a timer, which is, of course a technique of technology. And so the way the class functions out as a result of this suggestion from a student, is we have our opening lecture and then for the next four hours we have fifty five minute reading blocks and we run it on time, where at the fifty five minute mark a timer goes off and we know that it's time to take a five minute break in which we chat perhaps nacks. After that five minute break is over, the timer goes off and again we dive right back into the book for another fifty five minutes. And so technology opens the courts and it also frames that temporal development of it. So it really is important to clarify that it's not as if technology is checked at the door. What is checked at the door is information technology, and so, for example, I do confiscate all of my students computers and cell phones at the beginning of class as a way of creating that distraction free zone in which we can then share this communal experience of reading a great work, be it a work of philosophy or a work of literature. But even in that case I wouldn't feel comfortable turning that into an absolute for a number of reasons, the most important one of which is concerns about accessibility and ablism. Of course, if a student told me, for a number of reasons, I prefer to read on a screen, absolutely there is zero concern on my end about incorporating technology in that way, as long as we share in the experience of trying to hold those distractions in a bayance somehow, and that's easy to do. So I would be even willing to to rethink the banning of laptops and technology and and other forms of mobile technology as a way of increasing the accessibility of the course, which I think is and should be a primary objective you mentioned, and this idea that you're receiving student feedback in order to evolve the course. I bet a lot of our listeners, including myself, we're super excited than we heard four...

...hours of undistracted reading and the heart might have gotten a little palpitated. To Talk to about where you started. Originally it was half hour intro framework and then four hours no end in sight, and that just psychologically proved daunting, and so you've evolved that into these smaller kind of our long frameworks just to prevent this kind of, you know, existential dread about what will I do for the next four hours in the students mind. Well, no, I didn't wait for that dread to kick in the first and in fact I think there is some value to the dread itself. But that's in some ways, that is the motivation behind a course like this, to feel the dread of dealing with a task that confronts you and staying with it, because even I have felt my heart palpitate a number of times where I think, Oh my God, I'm the professor, what if I'm the only one that doesn't finish the book, the last one, and there's been value in confronting that and learning to let go of it and so on the first day. But I did was a sort of emotional attunement extra science in which I began the class, before giving any lecture on the first day of class, by being very candid with my students and I told them, look, I'm very happy that all of you are taking a risk in taking this experimental work. Will do my best to do justice to the course and to the material and to you. But I'm going to be honest with you about the fact that it's scary and I'm nervous and I want us all to talk first and foremost about what makes us all anxious about this class. And so we went around the room and we shared some of our concerns. Some students opened up right away. They said, I don't know that I can read for four hours. I haven't done it in a very long time. Others said, I'm afraid that people will judge me if I don't finish the book. Other people said, I'm afraid that I'll be constantly checking on my neighbor as a way of assessing how far in the book I am and that that will be a source of destruction. And so by putting all of these fears and anxieties on the table, it really had an impressive the impressive effect of sort of clearing them out of the room and suddenly we all felt like we're exploring unknown territory together, but we're in it together and let's see where it goes. And so one of the most surprising things about this course for me was the ease with which we all sort of collectively throw ourselves into the reading from the very beginning and after the end of the first day, when and we read three full book chapters in in in the span of about three and a half hours. After that, I checked in with the students again and I said, let's talk about how that was. It was our first attempt and the general consensus, in fact the universal consensus, was it was less difficult than we all thought and once we held in the bands, the distractions, there were no push notifications, there were no messages, there were no pains ones. That was held in abyands and we had no access to our cell phones. We all did what we know we can do. We abandon ourselves to a great work, and so the important thing, I think, was the recognition of the difficulty and fears and ones. That recognition was in place, the collective experience took an entirely different it took an entirely different air, if I can put it that way. Yeah, I love that permission that you gave them about this is weird. You should feel anxious. I feel anxious. Were on this together. The that is beautiful. What kind of feedback did you get from the students about their mental process? In that first three and a half...

...hour block and the second class, in the third class, in terms of what was their own mental evolution about being able to because these are students who, again, you know, younger than us, perhaps more digital natives in terms of they may have had cell phones and text from when they were eight years old, they may not have ever read undistracted in their entire lives. What did that learning curve look like for them? So the learning curve, if we and I'm not even sure that learning curve is the right way to describe this, but at least what they have reported to me, on that first day, three things stand out that I can recall. The first one is that that's when a student said, what if we incorporated a little bit more temporal structure with reading blocks, so that when we begin reading, you're not just sort of confronted with this vast expanse of time that you can't really keep track off and that at some point your mind is going to wander, and that's when I said, I think that's a great idea and we started incorporating a timer in subsequent classes. So that was one of the first points of feedback that I got. Another thing that students reflected upon at the end of that first day. Which I thought was quite interesting, and I have been thinking about this in itself as a subject of inquiry or potentially further research, is the extent to which the activity of reading is not just a mental or cognitive or intellectual task, it's an embodied practice. So, for example, when we began reading, a lot of students later said initially I was a little nervous because I felt like I needed to move, but I didn't want to break the the ambience. I didn't want to sort of distract everybody by moving. But then when somebody finally moved and started walking around reading standing up, then other students began doing the same and since then we've noticed that we all move when we read for that long. Sometimes we're sitting, sometimes we get up and read standing up by some of the counters. Sometimes were stretching and reading and sometimes, because in the room in which I teach the class there are couches, some students sort of lean back or lay down and some students now even bring blankets and pillows to get comfortable, which I think really highlights the importance of the body in maintaining that kind of mental focus. So I have found that sort of intellectually interesting that so much of our reading capacities depend to some degree on our body posture, on our body movement, on our body position, etc. So that was another interesting point that the students pointed out when reflecting on their own experience. And the last thing, and this made me extremely happy because I shared this experience as well. One student in particular said this was so joyful and I feel so much closer to all of you, even though I don't know who you are. And I thought about that and I thought in terms of my own experience. When I think about reading in silence with another person, I usually limit that to either very good friends, I did that quite a bit in graduate school, or family members, when you go and visit your parents or your siblings and you you know read for for an hour or two in the evening, or a romantic partner, and so there's a kind of intimacy in reading together silently and I had never really thought about that. And the student said the joy that I felt, it's hard to describe, but I just feel like I'm closer to everybody here, and I felt that too, but I didn't have the...

...language to express it until the student expressed it for me. And so part of the mental evolution I think of that first day really include it for a lot of us, this recognition of how powerful and valuable and joyful the practice of attentive reading is. And after that comment, which sort of ended the class, I just walked away with the biggest mile on my face because, of course that that is what motivated me to do this class in the first place. It was the question, how can I get that back when I feel like all these distractions, all these little tiny cuts that are so subtle but incessant are taking away? And so I think those are the three things that really stand out about what the students reported after the very first day. It's beautiful. Beautiful you're having church in San Francisco, David's good stuff. Love that you're, like I menting, love that we all get to learn from you. Any next steps for institutions listening to this, excited about what what you're doing, looking to similarly create distraction free classes, courses zones on their own campuses? Well, I think it depends by institutions. So in some institutions, and this was the case at SFSU, part of the difficulty is just being able to get this course on the books, because it can be tricky. You know it. I sometimes there is a shortage of classrooms. Sometimes students are not sure what a course like this means, so you have to publicize it in a particular way. I had to do that for this class. So in terms of next steps, the first thing I would say is anybody that might be interested in a course like this would have to be familiar with the institutional and bureaucratic landscape of their university to know how to navigate it to get the course on the books. Yeah, it's not impossible, but it might require a little bit of clever thinking. So, for example, here one of the obstacles that we encountered after I brought up the idea to my department and my department was extremely supportive, including my share, we realized that at San Francisco State, because we are a very small campus with a lot of students, we have a space problem. I mean our campus for a thirtyzero student enrollment is relatively small. Yeah, and because of that the university instituted a policy where you cannot have long three hour seminars any time before four or five PM. And so then we realize that there is an exception to that, which is you can schedule those courses if your department owns the room, so, for example, a faculty room or I Graduate Student Lounge, and so that's where we hold the meeting, which is why there are couches in the room, but that required navigating the space. The second thing in terms of next steps for people or departments that might be interested in something like this is to think about the specific needs of their student body and take that into consideration. So I am at a commuter school where students don't want to come to campus on days where they don't have classes or don't have to come because they have very long commutes. I have a lot of students that have to two and a half hour long commutes to get to my classes. Yeah, and so I had to keep that in mind when thinking about how often will this class meet and for how long? So just being aware of student needs and tailoring the class to those needs. Another thing that I would say is that this this course, in many ways it's force comes...

...from its form, not necessarily its content, although of course the content has its own contribution to and so it is a highly adaptable and highly flexible course. In this case, I am currently teaching this first pilot program or pilot course, if you will, and I decided to teach it on existentialist literature and philosophy, in part because I have expertise in that area and in part because it seemed like like a fitting subject to study in a course with this particular kind of format. Were reflecting on human existence in these long periods of shared collective silence. There's some kind of isomorphism between those two things that maybe I should also think about a little bit more. But the interesting thing is that, of course you can change the content very easily and in fact some of my colleagues said, David, would you let me teach that class? I could I teach that class in the future on my subject area of expertise, and I said that's that's wonderful. And so if somebody wanted to teach this course, say with anthropology, with history, even in the natural sciences, I assume it can be incorporated in some way. You still get that value of getting students in a room to think for an extended period of time about a text or about a problem and then chatting about it together. At the end, because we don't just read in silence. We read for the first four hours and then we have a discussion that is modeled after a reading group, where we just share our thoughts, ask questions about the things that confused us and race points about the things that stood out for us, and that adds to that shared intimacy. But it's important to note that it really could be any subject matter that could be taught in this way, and so it's a highly flexible, highly adaptable course if you can manage to get it on the books and then if you do the right kind of publicizing work to make sure that students understand roughly what their course experience would look like. Fun, because if students just see a sixhour course that meets once every two weeks on Friday, they will have no concept, no framework for making sense of what that is, and so chances start they will assume it's a specialized course that doesn't really apply to them. David, thank you so much for your time, your brain and your experimentation today. What's the best place for listeners to connect with you if they have any follow up questions? Yeah, I mean people can reach out to me through email, my email address is David M Penna at gmailcom Da vid m Peana at Gmail, and people can find my information on my department's website, the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, and I would be happy to chat with people about this course, about some of the challenges associated with it, some of the planning, some of the organization, and hopefully there are people out there who think this is a course that our students might benefit from, because that's exactly how this course began for me. I thought that a course like this would benefit our students and all it took really was some thinking around the schedule, thinking about our room for it, and then it was on the books. And so it's actually quite easy to create, assuming there is support both from...

...people's departments and from the institution at large. At my school, about two weeks ago there was a new story about the class, an organization that specializes in higher ed news and Higher Ed Development's rent a story on discourse and I got a lot of support from the university because a lot of people on campus didn't know about it and when they found out about it they said, you know, we're very happy and we're hoping that this happens again and that you can replicate this course in the future and that you teach it next semester or next year, because there there seems to be some genuine value and some genuine novel work that the course is doing, and so I would really encourage people in other universities, independently of their area of specialization, to just ask the question to themselves. Could a course like this produce value, pedagogic value, existential value, educational value for my students and if so, it might be worth considering? David, such good stuff. I really do think you're starting a movement here. Excited to help you get this out in the heather a little bit further. Thanks against so much for joining us today. Thank you so much, Erik. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show on Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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