San Francisco State University Experiments with Distraction-Free Zones

Students currently live in a uniquely distractable world due to the onslaught of information technology, so how can higher education create safe spaces from those distractions in order to get deep work done?

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

How to Self-Govern Against Distractions

David launched a course designed to help students discover the value of deep reading.

“Technology is quite important in education at all levels,” David said. “I’ve incorporated various kinds of technologies into various kinds of courses.”

So the target of the course isn’t technology itself. It is the distraction that information technologies in particular can generate when they are allowed to infiltrate into our independent tasks. But this is not a ban on technology.

“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,” David told us. “And the best way to sort of approach a particular text, in my view, is to have some sense of the cultural, historical, and political background or context in which that text is situated.”

Each class, therefore, opens with a half-hour lecture using PowerPoint designed to contextualize a particular work.

In the opening lecture, David uses images, maps, and YouTube videos to provide students a specific framework through which to approach the text.

Then, the whole group dives into the reading. “We have our opening lecture,” David said, “and then for the next four hours we have 55-minute reading blocks.”

At the 55-minute mark, the timer goes off, and the class takes five minutes to chat and grab snacks. After that five minute break is over, the timer goes off, and everyone dives right back into the book for another 55 minutes.

“Technology opens the course,” David explained, “and it also frames the temporal development of it. So it really is important to clarify that it’s not as if technology is checked at the door.”

How to Overcome the Initial Existential Dread of Reading Undistracted for Four Hours

“I didn’t wait for that dread to kick in,” David said, “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?”

Putting all of these fears and anxieties on the table cleared them from the room. Now, students feel like professors and learners alike are exploring unknown territory together. It’s less difficult than students originally thought.

“When we began reading,” David told us, “a lot of students said, ‘Initially I was a little nervous because I felt like I needed to move, but I didn’t want to break the ambience. I didn’t want to 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.”

Now, some students even bring blankets and pillows to get comfortable.

One student in particular said, “This is so joyful, and I feel so much closer to all of you even though I don’t know who you  are.” That shows how powerful attentive reading can be.

Next-Steps Advice for Other Institutions Creating Distraction-Free Zones

If you want to launch a class like this, be familiar with the institutional and bureaucratic landscape of your university. Know how to navigate it to get the course on the books because it might require a little bit of clever thinking.

Consider the specific needs of your student body. “I have a lot of students that have two and a half hour long commutes to get to my classes,” David said. “And so I had to keep that in mind when thinking about how often will this class meet and for how long.”

Realize that this course’s force comes from its form, not necessarily its content. So if you can get it on the books, be sure to publicize the course to make sure students understand roughly what their course experience would like like up front.

“If students just see a six hour course that meets once every two weeks on Friday,” David said, “they will have no concept, no framework, for making sense of what that is. And so chances are they will assume it’s a specialized course that doesn’t really apply to them.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. David Peña-Guzman from the San Francisco State University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.