Boring

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

I am among the fortunate—at least we think we are fortunate—who find lots of things interesting. People, ideas, places, objects, books (especially), history, coincidences, clouds, robots, speech, movement, things I understand, things I don’t. It is not that I flit from one to another in a whirl of distraction. Rather, I sink into whatever has caught my attention and have to be pried loose.  

This is not to say I am immune to boredom. I have high resistance to the big B, a threshold that allows me to look with rapt admiration alike on rooftop water towers and roadside cows. I once bought a book titled Boring Postcards, but felt taken. The picture of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in its youth, for example, radiates an innocent optimism.

But there are certain anti-stimuli that overwhelm even my well-honed capacity for fascination. PowerPoint, for instance. The instant a speaker commences to talk his way through bulleted slides, my eyelids feel the tug of gravity. Space-time wells up in an irresistible tide that draws me out beyond the shores of consciousness. Who invented this elixir of tedium? At times I suspect it is an alien technology sent to Earth to prepare the way for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And who are these academics who willingly trade in their birthrights as people with something to say for the mess of pottage of nothing worth looking at?

PowerPoint by all rights should have been center stage at Boring 2010, the international conference held a few weeks ago in London. Indeed, it sounds as though many of the speakers were on top of their game. The Wall Street Journal reports that conference organizer James Ward gave the opening presentation about his collection of neckties, “accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.” I, for one, would have been at risk of taking a lively interest in his cravats, and it is nice to know that Mr. Ward took the precaution of adding some anesthetizing technology to prevent errant enthusiasm from breaking out.

Staving off such enthusiasm can be a challenge. In 2008, Alan Caruba, founder of the Boring Institute, announced that after more than two decades of work, he was closing it down. The problem? Way too much interest. Caruba explained, “at the height of the Institute’s fame, I averaged a thousand radio interviews a year, all clustered around the various events, and even did some television appearances. I talked with radio hosts from Australia to England, New Zealand to Germany, and everywhere in America.” Caruba was not initially averse to the attention. He is, rather, like me, a natural taker-of-interest:

I am possessed of a mind that endlessly entertains me. I make myself laugh. I don’t know if others do this, but I find my thoughts either astonishingly profound or amusingly idiotic. Either way, I am always surprised.

But Caruba got tired of the game.

Or maybe not. Somehow his interest revived and the Boring Institute came roaring back. Caruba’s brand of cultural commentary is now attracting considerable attention and The Wall Street Journal article on the London conference is, of course, feeding the fascination.

Caruba dates the genesis of the Boring Institute to his watching a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. My epiphany of boredom has always been New Year’s Eve, which as a child I experienced as an eternity of dumb television shows leading up the spectacularly empty moment of Guy Lombardo’s band, the Royal Canadians, playing Auld Lang Syne, as a ball full of light bulbs descended in Times Square. My life has been shaped by the need to escape that moment.

Does higher education have a boredom problem? Caruba argues that it does. “Americans at almost every age level sit through countless boring hours in school rooms, in college, attending endless business meetings, and at any one of the thousands of conferences held throughout the year.” The college part of that concerns me most.  I fear he is right. College ought to be among the places where Boredom can’t find an inch of space to land and fold her matted wings. But the combination of mass production, doctrinaire teaching, careerist ambition, competition from the ersatz excitement of popular culture, and higher ed’s own addiction to deadening technology have welcomed her in.

Of course, we stave off the boredom of New Year’s by making resolutions. One of mine is to get invited to Boring 2011 to lecture (with PowerPoint!) on the need for Auld Lang Syne studies in the core curriculum.

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