A man walks down the street
He says, “Why am I short of attention?
Got a short little span of attention
And, whoa, my nights are so long.
(Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”)
Over the years, friends and relatives have noted that I didn’t seem to have changed much. Looked the same, same politics, same sense of humor, etc. And I have acknowledged the truth of this observation. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but I no longer consider it an insult. Maybe it’s even a compliment; at worst, it is a neutral comment. And, as I considered this week’s prompt, I realized that, notwithstanding social media and technology, it is also true of my attention span. Yep; 30-45 minutes — then, now, and probably forever.
I first noticed this in grade school, where I became (and, of course, still am) an inveterate clock watcher. No matter how fascinating the class, somewhere between the 30 and 45 minute mark I’d first look up and check the classroom clock or my watch. And then struggle mightily to pay attention for the remainder of the class. (This reminds me of the quintessential classroom attention span movie scene: Ben Stein as a monotonic economics teacher droning “Bueller?… Bueller?…” in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Thus, the featured image.)
This same pedagogical attention span stayed with me through college and law school. And then, even as a lawyer taking continuing legal education courses the last few decades, no matter how fascinating the topic — and, trust me, there are some legal topics I actually find fascinating — I invariably hit the proverbial attention span wall at the aforementioned 30-45 minute mark. Then I just hung in there until the end to get the required CLE credit.
And what about my present COVID/retirement era attention span? Same old, same old, it seems. Early last year, spurred on by a generous gift certificate bestowed on me by some outside attorneys I had worked with for years, I started to stream The Great Courses lectures. Here’s a sampling from its homepage:
Since then, I have watched these lectures, typically one a day, neary every weekday, with my principal focus on lingusitics and music appreciation courses (though I have just finished a surprisingly interesting course on Gibbons’ “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”). And, happily for me, most of the lectures log in at just over thirty minutes. The one exception seems to be the music courses, since they typically also include passages of the music being described by the instructor. As a result, these are generally about forty five minutes long. And, apart from the inherent interest to me of the courses — unlike Ferris Bueller, no one is forcing me to take them — and their universally good instructors, this length is perfect for my ever-constant attention span. No distractions and no itchy fast-forward finger.
But there are troubling signs on The Great Courses horizon that, even if I am not reducing my own attention span, the rest of the world is. Indeed, The Great Courses just changed its name to the faux-word “Wondrium,” which I assume is the result of its market researchers concluding that “courses” sounds just too long and academic and, by contrast, “wondrium” sounds, well, simply wondrous. Plus, there are more and more gratuitous (to me) graphics inserted in the lectures, again signaling a concern about keeping viewers’ attention. Worst of all, I watched a recently produced linguistics course that, although still excellent, was broken down into bite-sized fifteen minute segments, crammed with graphics. I’m surprised that it didn’t also flash “Are you still watching?” on the screen as well. In any event, I revised my one-a-day rule for these lectures and would watch two of them at a sitting, not getting my full attention fix from just one.
And, speaking of fifteen minute segments being too short, that is also a reason why I am not enamored of TED talks, regardless of how sexy (sometimes literally) their topics are. Per TED’s rules, their talks are limited to eighteen minutes.
Again, this is simply not long enough for my own attention span, though I am sure the short length (pardon my oxymoron) is a good deal of the reason for TED’s enormous popular appeal.
In sum, and to be fair to The Great Courses/Wondrium and TED, what they are now doing clearly reflects the decreasing attention span of so many of us, as most notably reflected in our evolving social media. After all, Twitter limits texts to only 280 characters. And, dare I say, even our beloved RetroFlash’s one hundred word limit probably appeals to our Retro-tribe’s own attention span deficiencies.
But, despite my own enjoyment of (occasionally) writing and reading our RetroFlashes, my attention span constancy remains. Indeed, it also applies to streaming TV shows/movies, which my wife and I have immersed ourselves in in the COVID era, courtesy of Netflix and its progeny.
Most series’ episodes are about forty five minutes long, which is perfect from my standpoint. However, my wife prefers watching two episodes most nights. So we have reached an exquisite marital compromise: we watch two episodes and I get to check my iPhone without criticism during the second one.
The one exception to my attention span constancy these days seems to be Zooms with family and friends. Of course, these are not pedagogical in nature, so this may not be a fair comparison. But I find myself so happily immersed in them that I not only don’t check the time, but am amazed when an entire hour has magically passed.
(Zoom with some of my college classmates last year.)
There is a lot more I could say about my personal — and seemingly perennial — attention span, but I think I’ve made my point. Plus, I don’t want to risk taxing any reader’s own attention span.