THE BLOG
04/17/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Jun 16, 2014

Distraction at Dartmouth College

Over the past year, Dartmouth College has experienced a number of events that have disturbed the normal operations of the institution from last April's disruptions of a weekend event for prospective students by livid undergraduates claiming the college is home to "racism, sexism, rape culture, homophobia, classism and ableism" to the arrest in May of a 20-year-old British undergrad on multiple counts of aggravated, felonious sexual assault, an event that has reverberated throughout the community up to and following his subsequent acquittal on March 27. Add to this the 14 percent drop in regular decision applicants, the continuing debate over fraternities and the occupation of the president's office on April 1, and you have what one might call a crisis.

I see another erosive trouble underway within the essential walls of this academic institution where, if we still believe in scholarship, the individual engages in deep uninterrupted thought for extended periods of time. I refer here to the library, and specifically, Dartmouth's Baker-Berry Library, the main bricked structure that serves as the College's heart with more than 1.5 million volumes spread out over 320,000 square feet. This is where I have spent the vast majority of my waking hours over the past year, usually in what is considered the quieter section of the library, a central area called the Stacks, which houses many of the library's books. If one wants to observe the habitual study behavior of Dartmouth students, then this place is as good as any.

Much ado has been made about the age of distraction in which we live and the threat to deep thought that is posed by the devices to which we are perpetually tethered. Nicholas Carr's seminal 2008 article "Is Google Making Us Stupid" highlighted the changes underway in deep reading and deep thinking, two cognitive exercises which, according to Dr. Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, are "indistinguishable" from one another. Carr's subsequent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains further emphasized distraction's attack on the sustained concentration essential to "encoding" memory. In a presentation at Dartmouth last October, Carr, a Dartmouth alum, pointed out how "interruption-rich" our world is with teens sending about 3,300 text messages every month, and 53 percent of people checking their cell phone at least once every 30 minutes.

Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist, professor and author of numerous books on distraction and the impact of technology and media on people, including The Distracted Mind which is scheduled for release later this year, has found that students' on-task attention lasts about two minutes before some device diverts their attention. A 2012 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon found that students who were instructed to read a short passage and answer comprehension questions performed 20 percent lower when interrupted by a device. Other studies have shown that once you're distracted re-immersion is a bit like descending back down to the depths from which you emerged. None of this really comes as any surprise; in the first century BC, Publilius Syrus, wrote, "To do two things at once is to do neither."

But allow me to return to those Stacks where I have mainly sought to engage in deep, concentrated reading, synthesizing, composition -- all those things that inform scholarship. My first recognition of the modern student's affliction came during the end-of-term period (Dartmouth runs on nine-week terms) when students fill the library to study for exams and write papers. I quickly noticed one thing: a ubiquitous "buzz-buzz." At the long tables that look out over the bucolic New Hampshire and Vermont landscape I would both hear the sound and feel its vibe. The sensory alert bombarded my cognition sending a disconnected dagger into any deep thought or writing. My glares were of no use so I departed with my thoughts scattered. "How can anyone get anything done?," I asked myself.

This scene recreated itself throughout the year, mostly at the end of the term, but also at other times. Then the spring term -- considered to be the busiest here -- commenced in late March and things worsened. One girl came in the other day, sat down and just started messaging, giggling, poking away -- between the buzz-buzzes -- for more than 15 minutes.

Consequently, I packed up and headed for another go-to spot in the belly of the library. Luckily, the area was vacant. Then, 10 minutes later, two girls arrived, unpacked their study materials and shortly thereafter, buzzes filled the room. For the 10 minutes that I tolerated it, they did not get any work done and neither did I.

Now, the college has "Quiet Zone" signs posted and, well, it's a library so quiet and etiquette seem self-evident (or at least they used to). In response to an email that I sent to a librarian about the trouble, I was told, "Texting seems to be an accepted part of undergraduate culture, and my observation is that having a phone on 'vibrate' is not generally considered to be a violation of a 'quiet zone.'" Editors at the college newspaper, The Dartmouth, have ignored my letters requesting some basic shared consideration as members of an academic community. There's a "that's life" air about it, for, indeed, there are many greater concerns and crises here at Dartmouth. But, perhaps, the most academically corrosive to this Ivy League institution is the deterioration of the studying environment caused by distractive devices and oblivious, distrait individuals.