Several tech companies have recently conceded that, perhaps, we really are spending too much time focused on screens. Google announced its Digital Wellbeing Initiative and Apple has added screen-time management tools to its much-anticipated iOS 12. (I happen to have a beta version of the new iOS 12 and I am too embarrassed to report here exactly how much time I spend on my phone.) Between the rise of digital-detox retreats and books warning against the social and emotional ramifications of being constantly distracted (see Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation), it is clear that we have grown weary of our many screens.
I have always been interested in the role of distraction in our writing lives. Like many others, I must put away the screens and turn off alerts to achieve what feels like a flow state of prose-productivity. The first ping of a text message or an incoming email and I’ve lost the thread of my ideas. I often wonder, how can we focus on developing our thoughts while distracted by the screens that surround us?
Those of us who teach and research writing are both bound to screens to do much of our work and, paradoxically, increasingly cautious of the impact those screens and their many distractions have on our ability to think clearly and coherently. Back in 2012, this duality led me to start investigating the impact of dual-task interference, or switching between cognitively challenging tasks, on college student writing. How can students write organized, thoughtful prose, I wondered, if they are always checking Facebook or text messages? That study suggested that students may have the cognitive awareness to create writing conditions that best serve their individual writing processes.
Of course, as an initial study, the findings resulted in more questions than answers. What impact does long-term distraction by technology have on student writing? How do students know what writing conditions serve them best? Which stages of the writing process are impacted most by distraction: planning, composing, or revising? And is there a difference between distractions from screens and distractions from life (such as the view from my window of the rising sun slowly lighting up a quiet North End street in Boston)? The list goes on.
Researching cognitive processes such as writing while distracted poses unique challenges for writing researchers, who must consider social, cultural, and environmental variables when designing studies that examine the mind at work. That is why Michael Rifenburg, Duane Roen, and I started the Cognition and Writing Standing Group as a space to share the latest research tools, empirical study design, publications, and opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. The work of this group led to the recent publication of Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing, a collection of scholarship that explores complex questions about our writing minds.
The resurgence of cognitive research by compositionists is leading to a better understanding of thinking processes involved in writing. As we continue to become more wired, more connected, and more reliant on technology, it is important that we continue to explore the impact of the ever-present screen on our writing lives.
Patricia Portanova is associate professor of English at Northern Essex Community College, where she teaches writing and communication. She has served as chair of the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium (NEWACC) and currently co chairs the Cognition and Writing Special Interest Group at CCCC. Her research focuses on cognition and writing, civic inquiry, and public rhetoric.