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Saturday, December 11, 2010


Each semester I assign to my Introduction to Mass Communications students a two-day experience. I ask them to get off of the mass media grid. Except for school or work-related activities, students are to turn off their music, their I Pods, phones, television, computer games, Internet, movies and even their car radio. They prepare to do so by alerting friends and family and creating a list of ten questions about the experience of living in the natural world of their senses for a temporary time without their digital extensions. They are not even allowed to read for pleasure, but they are asked to keep a hand-written journal in which they note their reflections on the questions they posed at the start, as well as other observations.

Invariably when the assignment is introduced there is much groaning and some disbelief. I explain I am aiming for the students to study themselves like bugs in a petri dish, to see their connections to media in an objective manner, from a distance. I am also interested in reviving their sense of the natural world, face-to-face conversations and being untethered to electronics.

The assignment is titled A Natural Senses Experience, and is intended to increase students awareness of their use of media and the roles it plays, some known and some unexamined. I would like to spark an interest in my students about what is on the other side of the screens that occupy most of their days and nights.

Over the semester, in preparation for the project which is near the end of the term, I try to cajole them into being interested in trying the 48 Hours by telling them stories students' experiences in past classes. There were many who were resistant to the project who made interesting discoveries after completing their time off-the-grid.

There was one young man who told the class about being surprised to learn that the brother, at whose home he was living, disclosed to him that he was lonely. He told us he realized he had not been available to his brother for most of the time they had been living under the same roof due to his use of media and electronic devices. Another student reported that the loud buzzing in his ears stopped during the project. There was a young woman this past summer who seemed especially resistant. She reported in her journal that she corralled her entire family for a drive to the coast, and that they sang and told stories since the car radio was off. She also reported reconnecting to her mother and younger siblings.

It doesn't always go so smoothly. I tell the story of doing the assignment along with my students about three years ago and realizing that I had been feeling smug about how well things were going then realizing I had been using my cell phone the entire length of the project. Something about media addiction is similar to other addictions, it's in large part under the radar.

The young woman standing in front of me after class today was about 25, a sweet, young mom who I considered to be fairly engaged in class and discussions, but I would see her from time to time with her head bent while texting into her cell. Although I state at the start of the semester my policy prohibiting use of cells during class, I've had to peddle back on the policy because students often text or do searches using their cell phones for class-related business. Fellow group members alert them they are stuck in traffic and will be in class soon, or during a class discussion there may be the need for a fast search on Google to chase a tid-bit of information.

Today, my student explained the 48 Hours Natural Senses Experience taught her something that surprised and pleased her. She said on the 2nd day of the project her grandfather showed up agitated at her front door because he could not get her to answer his phone calls. She had not followed the assignment instructions about alerting people she would be temporarily out of touch.

My student and her 3 year old daughter had been outside and while putting up Christmas lights she had noticed for the first time in living there for five months that two doors away another three year old was playing with her mother in their front yard. The moms and girls met and now the children are regular playmates.

My student explained to her grandfather that she was fine and that the reason she had not been answering her phone was the off-the-grid experience assigned for her Mass Communications class. She said when he heard about the assignment his eyes seemed to light up. He saw his chance and seized it.

They began a visit of the sort they had never had before. He told her a family story about his last name not really being his because he had been adopted when his father was deported to Mexico. She had never known this and listened as he continued with other stories.

My student told me that she noticed that during the conversation with her grandfather that she was able to listen more deeply --not just following along, but falling into his story-- in a way that had never happened before. She said the difference was that she was not distracted by the TV in the background or by glancing down to check her cell phone.

More importantly, she also said that her grandfather was speaking in a more engaged way than ever before. "In the past he didn't act like it, but he actually had noticed that I was distracted, that I constantly glanced at my phone or the TV and really had not been giving him my full attention." Now it was different. This time he really knew she was listening and his own response was different too, deeper, richer, fuller. More intense.

These two awarenesses that my student told me about were born from the experience off the grid, and are the reason for the assignment. When we learn what good, rich conversations require, we are more likely to have more of them and enjoy the gifts that flow from them. This improves our human connections to each other. Which is the point of communication.

There are myriad examples of how technology helps to connect us to one another. I follow on Facebook the 5K races, birthday parties and other events that family and friends share. This helps me to keep in touch in ways not possible ten years ago.

There are far fewer examples of what our over-dependence on media and technology can sometimes cost us in human interactions and connections, yet the cost of these are too expensive to ignore. My student's afternoon of speaking with and learning about her grandfather brought them closer together than he ever expected, and closer than she ever knew was possible.

She got off the grid for long enough to give him the signal she was really listening. She gave herself the gift of undisturbed time to send that signal and enjoy hearing the stories that her grandfather either had never tried to tell or felt she didn't have the time or interest to hear.