The Pedagogy of Attention

As a high school English teacher, I often find myself asking students whether they are paying attention. “Are you paying attention?” Recently, however, I have begun to turn that question back on myself. And what I’ve found is that a teacher’s powers of attention can amount to one of the most potent tools in our pedagogical toolbox. For our powers of attention are what enable us to identify and nourish talents within our students that might otherwise have remained latent or dormant.

The thinker who inspired me to reflect upon the pedagogical promise of attention is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In a series of essays on “reparative reading,” Sedgwick nudges humanities scholars to move beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion that have organized much recent literary and cultural criticism. While she affirms the importance of critiquing the ideologies embedded within texts, Sedgwick argues that scholars should also approach texts as reservoirs of intelligence that might serve as resources for readers. To approach a text in a reparative manner is to “confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.”

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How might Sedgwick’s insights into “reparative reading” apply to the practice of teaching? While it is important for teachers to provide students with critical feedback, it is equally important for us to attend to our students’ intellectual strengths and capabilities — perhaps especially if those capabilities remain unrecognized or unrealized.

This dimension of our work can feel tremendously exciting. I love the challenge of identifying and describing talents that students don’t know they possess. And I’m fascinated by how a teacher’s powers of attention — of perception, of description — can provide a student’s inchoate potential with a sustaining form that enables it to flourish.

In the same way that a gardener provides his plants with a supporting trellis that enables those plants to climb skyward, a teacher can provide students with conceptual affordances — that is, with the imaginative scaffolding comprised by vivid descriptions of their talents — that will motivate them to grow and expand those talents.

Although most of Sedgwick’s writing takes the form of literary criticism, I’ve been equally captivated by her experiments in more personal genres: tributes, memorials, autobiographical essays. For it’s there that readers gain access to Sedgwick’s startling gift for celebrating what she refers to as the “piercing bouquet” of each individual’s personality. Like her favorite novelist, Marcel Proust, Sedgwick takes delight in tracing the shape of other people’s idioms and idiosyncrasies. “My way of paying attention to people is additive, non-narrative,” she wrote. “It makes persons my favorite study; makes them [. . .] endlessly broodable-on.”

But Sedgwick’s account of the utility of attention has implications that go beyond the identification of students’ preexisting talents. For a teacher’s attention might also take the form of what Jason Edwards has called “speculative generosity.” As this delightful phrase suggests, the question of whether the talents that a teacher identifies are empirically verifiable or merely “speculative” may not matter very much in the long run. For what a teacher adept at identifying students’ talents really does is provide those students with what a Kleinian scholar like Sedgwick would refer to as positive “internal objects.” That is, the teacher provides students with affirming self-images that those students might then choose to identify with and amplify.

Of course, the word speculative has a second meaning that also resonates here. To “speculate” is to invest one’s resources in something with the hope of eventually reaping some kind of return. The pedagogy of attention amounts to a form of speculation because the effort that teachers invest in buoying their students yields real benefits for themselves as well.

Indeed, the pedagogy of attention can foster a special kind of economy that is not predicated on loss. It can instantiate an economy in which students’ intellectual growth yields benefits for everyone in the school: teachers, classmates, and so on. Whenever possible, I try to support the kinds of economies in which the production of a gain for some people doesn’t come at a cost for others. Maggie Nelson gets at this kind of economy when she asks, “Can it be that words comprise one of the few economies left on earth in which plenitude — surfeit, even — comes at no cost?”

And so we are returned to “plenitude.”

Before concluding, I want to acknowledge the importance of Carol Dweck’s warnings about how complimenting a student for being “smart” — an over-general term that frames intelligence as innate and unchanging — can instill a “fixed mindset” that forestalls intellectual growth. Dweck provides compelling evidence that teachers should instead compliment students for being “hard-working” and “persevering” — words which instill a “growth mindset” that facilitates intellectual risk-taking and perpetual improvement.

While Dweck’s insights have been game-changing for teachers, I hope we won’t abandon the practice of celebrating students for particular skills and aptitudes. Doing as much not only enhances students’ self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-direction, but provides them with an appreciation for the many different forms that intelligence can take. And an expansive appreciation of personal difference is another thing that we would all benefit from.

An appreciation for personal difference was Sedgwick’s first axiom: “People are different from each another.” The axiom is arresting in its obviousness. “It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact.”

What might happen if we were to attune ourselves more closely to our students’ latent capacities and incipient talents? What might become possible if we were to cultivate a deeper curiosity about when and how each particular student raises her voice, responds to certain kinds of problems, or generates new ideas and concepts?

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