Thoreau’s Cellphone Experiment

When I teach “Intro to Literary Study,” I ask students to review their media consumption, and propose their own “media fast.” It’s not as simple as simply asking them to sign off of Facebook.

For instance, I pointed out that I spend far more time on email than Facebook, so giving up Facebook would be trivial and not really all that challenging for me — especially because it’s possible to configure Facebook so you can read and respond to threads by email. And giving up email wouldn’t be practical, since I needed it to do my job. However, when my children were smaller, I would often plunk them down in the living room to play “the book game,” where I made my son entertain his little sister by reading her a book of her choice, a book of his choice, and a (nice and long) book that I selected. Rather than sitting down with my children and reading with them, I was using my son’s reading talents as a way to buy time for myself to do housework, or (I confess) to answer email, or post to my blog.  While certainly occupying my children by getting the older one to read to the younger one is better than letting them both wreak havoc, in my heart of hearts I knew I was just using the book as a babysitter.  So, during my “media fast” week, I promised to avoid that less-than-noble use of media.

In an article in the Chronicle, William Major describes asking students to put their smartphones on their desks, and then offers them extra credit if students will hand over their phones for a week. That certainly makes for a dramatic scene, and some of the comments on the story have responded to the shock-tactic, noting that students might be more willing to participate if they could at least notify their associates that they’ll be going off-grid for a while.  And, of course, at Seton Hill, students who handed over their smartphones could still manage fairly well with their iPads, and students won’t want to hand over their iPads because professors in their other courses are likely creating iPad-specific assignments. Still, the exercise is well worth reading about, and I’m blogging this so I remember it the next time I teach Thoreau.

My students say they are generally (and theoretically) in favor of conserving, spending less, and (again, theoretically) living their lives with fewer things–as long they are not asked to do too much.

No, where they take a stand is when Thoreau asks them to spend time alone, away from family and friends: disconnected, separated, out of touch. Solitude, it seems, scares them. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” Thoreau wrote. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” That is a sentiment so disturbing to my students as to make some of them angry.

As part of the experiment, I always ask my students to write about being left in the technological cold. I want to know about their expectations, reservations, and day-to-day experience of disconnection. Give me the good and the bad.

Their most common response? Fear. —William Major, Chronicle

Related post: “The way I read an email ‘s this,” a kind of lament, inspired by Emily Dickinson’s tribute to snail-mail, “The way I read a letter ‘s this.”

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