• September 1, 2015

Thoreau's Cellphone Experiment

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I took their smartphones, and the world continued to spin. I took their BlackBerries, and that did not lead to chaos. If I could have, I would have taken their Internet access, too, just to see the looks on their faces.

I rarely offer my students extra-credit assignments, because I don't typically like to create more work for myself than necessary. Inspired, however, by Henry David Thoreau's calls for simplicity and solitude, I have, for the past few years, conducted a classroom experiment: On our final day of discussing Walden in my literature course for sophomores, I ask students to get out their BlackBerries and smartphones and lay them on their desks. I then offer the extra credit they've been begging for since day one: They'll get it if they let me keep their phones for five days.

You would think I'd asked the class to remove their collective clothes. Which, in a way, I had.

The hyperbolic Thoreau told us that he never received much worthy news through the mail, never found anything of interest in the papers. For the person striving to understand the right way to live, "all news, as it is called, is gossip."

Nineteenth-century America had its own version of Twitter in the penny papers of the day, whose allegiance to fear and gossip-mongering was every bit as real as our own. But most of my students don't read newspapers. They rarely watch the news. Their connections, such as they are, are not with the latest dust-up in Burma or tuition hikes in England. They are not particularly engaged in Obama's fight with the Republicans. In fact, many don't know we recently had an election.

And while it may seem that Thoreau's most difficult lesson for the American student is to "simplify," to reduce both needs and wants, I don't see it that way. 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. Initially, most of them worried that they would miss something: a family emergency, a party, a job offer, a friend who "really needed" them. Many were anxious they would be stuck somewhere on the road, having had an accident. Some surmised that they wouldn't be able to call someone if they were robbed or, worse, raped. In short, most of them thought little good could come of an experiment meant to liberate them from the incessant presence of other people.

The reluctance to give up their phones (many students didn't participate) derived from a sense that they would either be absent when something happened to someone they knew, or that they would be present, sans phone, when something terrible happened to themselves. "I'm not sure how people made it through the weekends without cellphones," one student wrote.

It did no good for me to explain that there was a time, not long ago, when none of us had cellphones, yet we still traveled hither and yon, we missed friends at parties, and our cars broke down—a lot more frequently than they do now. And when our cars broke down, we figured things out as we went along—you know, practiced a little self-reliance.

In a burst of honesty, a student wrote: "My expectation as well as fear about giving up my phone was that I would not have anyone to talk to. I had imagined myself just being all alone for the entire weekend. I was basically afraid of being alone." She experienced a "feeling of emptiness. I felt like I lost a friend."

I don't know whether it occurred to her that such emptiness might be a good thing, that she would have many more such feelings during her life, with or without her phone, and that she might want to get used to them, or at least find a way to use them.

Another student wrote that even though "I enjoyed the feeling of walking to my own music, I found it difficult to be without a phone for the past six days, simply because I didn't like thinking about my life so much, and my phone was always there to help me keep my mind off things." She didn't say what it was she was trying to ignore, but I noted her very Thoreauvian description of "walking to my own music" coupled with a clear distaste for her self, her need to be in the very un-Zen place called elsewhere.

When I began the experiment, I explained that I, too, had close friends, and that we remained close, in part, because we didn't make a habit of talking with or seeing each other frequently. I see two of my closest friends for only a few days every two years. My students were stunned. I made clear that my friends don't need me in constant contact. At least, they don't need to know what I do every day. Neither do I require frequent updates from my friends, who are secure in the knowledge that, to use the common parlance, I would "be there for them" if necessary. Moreover, when my phone rings, I answer it sporadically and reluctantly, not out of spite toward whoever is on the other end, but because I don't feel compelled to jump when someone else is feeling whimsical. I told the students that I speak with my mother, who lives halfway across the country, once a week—sometimes once every two weeks—and that I like it that way.

What if something happens to your mom? they wanted to know.

What could I do from 1,000 miles away? I answered.

But what if she died? What if? What if? What if?

Many of my students speak with their parents several times a day. They are, I am assured, Best Friends! A few students said they couldn't possibly give up their phones, because their parents would think something had happened to them. "They might think I'm dead."

I had trouble with that one. What kind of parents think their adult sons and daughters are dead if they don't hear from them for a day or two? What kind of sophomore in college lives with such odious responsibility?

Perhaps the kind who live in fear. And so I proposed the extra-credit assignment knowing that it might hurt. The outcome? Several students complained that they had missed their morning classes because I had their alarms. One or two said their significant others were fuming mad because they weren't answering texts. It must, after all, mean something that he's not responding.

Conversely, one male wrote that the "best part of not having a cellphone was freedom from my girlfriend." Not freedom to look for another girlfriend, he hinted, but simply out of a desire for some "alone time": "When I have my cellphone on me, she is constantly text-ing me." For some reason he feels compelled to answer.

Another student put an odd gender spin on the experiment: "Being a man I assumed being without a phone for a few days wouldn't hurt me. It has only been a matter of three hours and I'm panicking like crazy." He didn't say what he was panicked over or what being a man had to do with it. However, when I returned his phone, he didn't seem panicked at all. Indeed, several students had hundreds of unanswered texts yet appeared embarrassingly healthy—even though one complained that her "fingers can't stop twitching."

They had found themselves reaching for their phones in the vain hope that someone was trying to reach them, when, in fact, their connections to the world lay silent at the bottom of my desk near the hand lotion and ibuprofen. It took several hours for them to adjust to not having that little shot of adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, or whatever chemical makes us feel alive whenever we anticipate the most important of communications: "im at the library where r u?"

Of the students who thought it a useful enterprise, several mentioned noticing the campus for the first time—that there are trees, plaques, and signage, and all manner of people in their midst, many of whom are texting or talking on their phones even as they walk with their friends. One student said he found himself talking with strangers, which I thought a perfect way for him to begin to question the fearful lessons his parents drummed into his head.

Even the students who mentioned feeling liberated said their behavior wouldn't change. Their novel sensation of freedom was perhaps too much to bear. But Thoreau had hope. He knew that "it is never too late to give up our prejudices." I, too, have prejudices. I, too, have a smartphone. I will endeavor to give up both.

William Major is an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford's Hillyer College.


1. dr_rosenrosen - January 17, 2011 at 07:35 am

Brilliant! I may try this in the spring.

2. janesdaughter - January 17, 2011 at 09:33 am

I love this! Professor Major doesn't give his age but he describes the kind of pre-Internet, pre-constant communication I still consider the norm in my friendships. And yet....I can't help feeling a little sympathy for the student who worries about something terrible happening and not having a phone to summon help. Such concerns are not entirely due to a generation raised by overly protective parents. Thirty years ago I drove from Delaware to upstate New York for the semester break, with very little concern for the wintery weather. I had one flat tire half way home, practiced that good old-fashioned self-reliance, and was able to call my parents from a Thruway rest stop with a breezy, "Don't worry, I'll just be a little later than planned." After the second flat, still 20 miles from home but with no spare tire, far from any phone or help, and with freezing temps outside the safety of the car, I was stuck and scared. When another driver stopped to ask if he could help, I rolled the window down barely a crack to ask him to call for assistance at the next exit. All I could think of was the horror stories of young women being abducted and raped when they learned too late that the Good Samaritan was actually Jack the Ripper. Long story short, he was a good guy, the next car to stop was a state trooper, and I got home at 2 in the morning. But I wouldn't advise anyone these days, male or female, to trust the kindness of strangers, or to go on a long car trip without access to a phone.

3. mkrand - January 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

When I read this post, I knew that the author must be male. I am 51 year old professor and I, for one, would never go back to a time when I didn't have a cell phone for one reason: personal safety. I remember what is was like to be a young college student walking around campus or town without that safety backup - or having my car break down on an unknown road. The idea that pre-electronics life was a simple utopia is flawed, especially for women who face real safety issues that men will never fully understand. I would have been one of those who rejected the extra credit.

4. 7738373863 - January 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

And what if a student's parent or other family member did fall ill or die? To carry out such an assignment, the instructor should insist in writing that each student that participates in the assignment contact his/her family via internet, informing the family of the experiment. To do otherwise is potentially to put oneself and one's college in harm's way from a lawsuit.

5. onlineasllou - January 17, 2011 at 10:48 am

I had a professor in grad school with the following policy:
1. All devices must be silent -- preferably, turned off -- but mute was acceptable if you had to be available to respond to an emergency of some sort. The students in "my" class must come prepared to leave their other committments at the door and give their attention to this seminar.
2. If you wanted to respond to a message, you had to discretely leave the room and were not allowed to re-enter the class until the break (always scheduled at the mid-point). This rule was to minimize the class disruptions and distractions for others. It was considered an important element of courtesy.
3. She openly told students that "If your kids can't go for 75 minutes without talking to you, they need a baby-sitter. There should be no need for them to interrupt your class unless there is a REAL emergency. If necessary, you can talk to them just before class, during the break, and immediately after class -- but not during class unless there is a true emergency worthy of your exit from class." (See #2 above.)
4. Your workplace should also be able to go without talking to your for 75 minutes. If not, there is something woefully wrong with the way you have managed your worklife.

People were a little taken aback by her strict rules, but they adjusted and most appreciated the atmosphere within her seminars as we were all "present" together.

6. burgoynes5 - January 17, 2011 at 10:55 am

What about land lines? What about email? Facebook? Faxes?

Are cellphones the only possible way for parents or friends to contact the students in case of emergency?


7. tentonbricks - January 17, 2011 at 11:18 am

What if a student's family member fell ill or died? I don't know. What did we do before cell phones? Did students get home at the end of the semester to find they had missed a funeral?

From what I gathered in this article, the professor didn't take away internet access, just phones. Emails, Facebook, etc. are all still available, as are pen and paper and postage stamps.

8. momosgarage - January 17, 2011 at 11:26 am

Umm... What about non-traditional students that actually WORK while they are in school? Some people need phones during the work week to condcut the functions of business, as requested by thier employers (yes, even Best Buy retail clearks need to take thier bosses phone calls and respond to voicemails in a prompt manner). Once agian I see a professor essentially offering something that only a child without responsibilties can take advantage of. Get your head screwed on right. You can NO idea how many of your students bosses expect them to keep "connected"

9. washingtonwarrior - January 17, 2011 at 11:46 am

Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. William Major should be vote professor of the year.

Important message to both young and old: Put down your phones. Look around. LIVE!

10. pfzenke - January 17, 2011 at 11:59 am

This is pointless.

11. writingprof - January 17, 2011 at 01:11 pm

A wonderful idea. But here's how it would go down at Highly Unethical Religious U.

1) Prof offers extra credit as described above.

2) Student A rejects offer, citing work concerns, parenting issues, or safety.

3) Student A goes to administrators and demands an alternative assignment because she or he "can't" do the one that's been offered.

4) Administrators cave.

5) Students B, C, D, and E decide that Student A's assignment sounds better.

6) Administrators cave.

7) Prof eliminates all extra credit, loses tenure case, takes menial job.

8) Menial job comes with cell phone.

12. amcmurry - January 17, 2011 at 02:26 pm

Brilliant. I've never owned a cell phone, so I've never known the panic and disruption that comes with having it taken away. It is amazing how in about 10 years they've become so ubiquitous that even middle-aged folk can't imagine life without them. But I suppose if we were accustomed to, say, wearing diapers throughout our lives we'd expect the worst to happen if we were forced to go an hour or two without them.

13. momosgarage - January 17, 2011 at 02:58 pm

"It is amazing how in about 10 years they've become so ubiquitous that even middle-aged folk can't imagine life without them"

Uh...Lucky you? People didn't CHOOSE to have cell phones, employers decided for them. Is that true for everybody? Of course not. The onoy reason I EVER got a cell phone was because they BOSS said I had to have one. Also, even if someones boss doesn't explicitly say they need a phone, THEY WILL EXPECT said employee to have one.

Have you been under a rock for the last 10 years will all this became the norm? Its not 1999 anymore.

14. goxewu - January 17, 2011 at 03:43 pm

The deprivation is for five days, people, not forever. Jeez.

15. momosgarage - January 17, 2011 at 06:56 pm

"The deprivation is for five days, people, not forever. Jeez"

If your employer calls your cellphone on Monday and asks you to do another shift or swap your schedule for Tuesday and the phone is sitting in your professors office, I'll make a wager you will be fired. Your comment is a holdover from the old 9-5 working world that ended over 10 years ago. If you are employed today, no matter what sector, you need a phone and you have to respond in a resonable time if your boss calls it.



As I said earlier thi professor is essentially offering something that only a child without responsibilties can take advantage of.

16. honey_bee - January 17, 2011 at 07:11 pm

Thank you for sharing your experiences teaching Thoreau and undertaking this experiment.

I am an ass't professor of English at a small liberal arts college. I wanted to share a writing exercise I do with my students that achieves similar results to the phone experiment, but without some of the safety issues others mention here.

Before we read HDT, I have my students spend one hour observing a natural/nonhuman object (which can be outside or inside -- there's great latitude there, and it's fun to see what "objects" some of them choose). They cannot bring a phone, laptop, iPod, etc., and they cannot have contact with any other human during that hour. They may take notes with a pen/pencil and paper.

After the hour is up, they write a reflection on that solitary, observational experience.

After they write that reflection, they read the chapter "Solitude" from _Walden_ that Prof. Major quotes from here, and they write a second response to their observation exercise, comparing their own philosophy/experience with HDT's. Their responses in the first reflection are typically filled with expressions of skepticism transformed to gratitude ("I thought this assignment was going to be excruciating, but it turned out to be relaxing and stress-relieving"). In 1:1 conversations, many students thank me for giving them "permission" to go off the grid, even if it's just for an hour.

In the second reflection, though, written after reading "Solitude," they almost all uniformly think HDT is bonkers. :)

17. foozleface - January 17, 2011 at 07:36 pm

Good spirit, but his experiment is a fake. He claims he's asking students to give up their cell phones. What he's actually doing is asking them to give up the phones on no notice. The former is something that I'd be happy to do; the latter is much harder. I'd have respect if he gave 'em 24 hour notice - then he'd have a more legitimate soapbox.

I believe that most of his students have set up an expectation of contact with peers, parents, and co-workers. If that contact suddenly vanishes, they would be rightly concerned. On the other hand, it really WOULD be interesting - and beneficial - to expose students to a cell-free life. But what he's doing is actually cruel and thoughtless.

18. shortstack81 - January 17, 2011 at 08:40 pm

"Once agian I see a professor essentially offering something that only a child without responsibilties can take advantage of"

momosgarage says this twice. I dunno, I'm employed, full time at that. I don't need a cellphone. In 6 years at the place I've worked, a coworker has called me twice at home, on my cellphone, and that was for a social function that wasn't even work-related. I've considered dumping it, actually, although I may not for personal safety reasons (oh, and my family would whine and I'd rather not hear their whining on yet another issue). Believe it or not, you *can* survive without it even if you're employed in our "post 9 to 5 world." Oh, and I'm 30, so I haven't been under a rock. Hardly a child without responsibilities.

And besides, if you read the article, the 5 days sans phone was optional. Again, not the end of the world, and jeez.

19. goxewu - January 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Re #15:

* I can't figure out whether momosgarage is a) a fearless fighter on behalf on the rights of students who also work, or b) a tembling dogsbody who's scared to death to breathe in front of the boss.

* What's with the all-caps and exclamation points? (Kids, can you spell h-y-s-t-e-r-i-c?)

* Cell phones frequently go dead, are non-functional because of unpaid phone bills, get lost or broken or stolen or are otherwise out of service for periods of five days, more or less. The odds of Granny needing CPR or the Yorkshire Ripper appearing on campus during any given five days are considerably less than the flight to Spring Break in the Bahamas going down, or one's getting T-boned on the freeway on the way to class.

* The "experiment" is probably worth it just for the expression on the students' faces when the bargain is proposed. Their jaws probably haven't hit the floor that suddenly since the food court ran out of Snapple pink lemonade at lunch last semester.

20. 11887635 - January 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm

The most significant element of this story for me is the level of fear expressed by the students and in some of the comments.

"What if ...?" encompasses a huge range of fears that are so incredibly remote as to be irrelevant. The fact that their parents might "think they were dead" if they don't call for a few hours, or even days, beggars belief.

Perhaps what is needed is a lesson in risk assessment rather than life without a cell.

21. seothegetpr - January 18, 2011 at 08:01 am

As I said earlier thi professor is essentially offering something that only a child without responsibilties can take advantage of.

22. kwwebster - January 18, 2011 at 09:50 am

I think there are some obvious generational tensions underneath the surface of William Major's argument and experiment. Younger generations always get the blame of a whole society's new bad habits. The fact that Mr. Major plays God and claims self-righteousness in the first two paragraphs is the clue that his experiment is flawed. He has already blamed his students, put them in a box, and sealed them up. He doesn't care what is underneath. This experiment seems more self-interested than for the benefit of his students.

I abhor professors, and writers alike, like William Major.

23. momosgarage - January 18, 2011 at 10:46 am

"I dunno, I'm employed, full time at that. I don't need a cellphone. In 6 years at the place I've worked, a coworker has called me twice at home, on my cellphone, and that was for a social function that wasn't even work-related. I've considered dumping it, actually, although I may not for personal safety reasons"

to shortstack81 and every other dope that seems to think their tenderfoot job with a reasonable boss and hours is the norm:

Umm...Lucky you? Some people didn't CHOOSE to have cell phones, employers decided for them. Is that true for everybody? Of course not. But if an employer expects that a phone is in an employees possession Monday through Friday, some employers believe they have the right to call it when they need something. Are you saying that your leisurely 20th century experience at work should be applied as extra credit to students that have no such luxury?

Hasn't happened to you? Well..lucky you. I didn't even mention folks who have to keep up on thier email when out of the office on the cellphone exchange server (iphone, blackerry, etc) or even other teachers who use blackboard etc to keep students hopping all day. But please stop pretending that your tenderfoot working life is the same for most employed folks and workig students.

Can I have your job? I'll trade you.

24. goxewu - January 18, 2011 at 11:06 am

Another "Jeez, people":

Prof. Major's "experiment" has to do specificially with his class's reading Thoreau's "Walden." He's simply asking--not requiring--those interested in walking a mile in HDT's shoes to do so.

And he's asking only those students who've been asking for "extra credit" all semester, i.e., (in my experience) grade-grubbers who want a Mulligan for the mediocre work they've done previously. IMHO, they're just the kind of students who'd benefit from a little gadget-deprivation.

And talk about overreactions! No. 22 ("Younger generations always get[ting] the balme of a whole society's bad habits," Prof. Major "playing God" and "claim[ing] self-righteousness,"* "blamed his students, put them in a box, and sealed them up," "He doesn't care what is underneath") is a classic, if there are classics in this sort of thing. All Prof. Major is doing is offering a little extra credit to students who, in order to somewhat better appreciate what Thoreau was about, volunteer to do without their cellphones for 120 hours. If this is "playing God," then God sure concerns himself with pretty low-ball stuff.

* Prof. Major doesn't "claim self-righteousness." Nobody would. "Self-righteousness," like "self-importance," is a derogatory term. kwwebster apparently also abhors writers who use the English language with some accuracy.

Note: Note: What's with seothegetpr saying, "As I said earlier thi[s] professor is essentially offering something that only a child without responsibilties can take advantage of"? There's no seothegetpr saying anything earlier. Could this be momosgarage under another pseudonym? If so, why? (The wonders of "Brainstorm" never cease.)

25. derekbruff - January 18, 2011 at 11:14 am

This is a particularly thoughtful approach to the "give up technology for a few days" meme that's going around education. Situating it within a study of Thoreau makes a lot of sense. Making the experiment more about being alone and less about technology is a nice approach.

On the other hand, I don't like the part of this meme that implies that it's only the students who need to do something different with their lives. I wish that the professor here had pledged to, say, use Facebook and/or Twitter extensively during those five days. Or not make phones calls, just send text messages. There are some real advantages to being connected, and the professor might have learned something from stepping outside his comfort zome a bit.

26. duhousing - January 18, 2011 at 01:12 pm

As a director of housing at a university, I can assure your parents do indeed think their college child is dead if they don't immediately answer their cell phone.

27. electronicmuse - January 18, 2011 at 01:30 pm

The justifiable need for a cellphone for emergencies only masks their real need: to remain in complete synchrony with those around them. Human beings have always done this to some extent, but now we have the means to make this latent need an absolute compulsion. The worst part about their feeble excuses is that they have failed to "know thyself." Can they not sit in a room alone-lest they perish? The cost of this contrived need for constant contact is a life of fear, if not of the trumped-up dangers the media have promulgated, then the fear of confronting one's own lack of having an inner life.

28. beezdotcom - January 18, 2011 at 01:46 pm

Oh my word, the incessant whining about "MY EMPLOYER REQUIRES IT! WAHH WAHH WAHH!"

This was done in the context of a college class. But the reactionary tone from some of the people NOT IN THIS CLASS makes me think that the arrow has found its mark.

Clearly, some employers require mobile communication. If you ONLY use the mobile device to respond to the whim of your employer, guess what? This article isn't criticizing you!!! So quit squealing like a stuck pig.

However, I daresay that this article contains a lesson for ANYONE - whether their drug of choice is to text, to Twitter, to FaceBook, to spend time idly on the phone (mobile or landline), or simply hang over the back fence gossiping. The point isn't that any of these things are necessarily bad; the point is that so many people use these things as an excuse to shortchange themselves from doing something more enriching.

Again, if this doesn't apply to you, wonderful. We will assume that I am not talking about you, and there is no need for rebuttal. The rest of us know who we are, and know our own foibles.

29. ejb_123 - January 18, 2011 at 04:26 pm

To those who claim that their empoloyers forced them to get a cell-phone, I wonder, "Why not just give your employer your land-line number?" If a person does not have a cell-phone, he or she probably has a land-line (though I recall a decade ago I tried to go without a land-line phone, until I caved and got one because I was not allowed to rent movies at Blockbuster without providing a phone number). Even when I worked at a restaurant and at a factory 2 years ago we did not have to have cell-phones. We just had to have some form of way for the employer to contact workers in case shifts changed and in case of bad weather. If I worked for an employer that told me I HAD to have a cell-phone, I would resign and find other work.

30. momosgarage - January 18, 2011 at 04:43 pm

Well ejb_123, get ready to have plenty of resignation letter ready for the future. If you think employers are not unspokenly requiring thier emplyees to have cell phones, than I don't think you are in any position to give career advice and should refrain from EVER doing so. Your mindset is hazardous to young peoples career goals and needs. I can't believe that people are actually trying to claim that modern employers do not expect employee's to be reachable by cell phone. Who the heck are you guys?

31. kwwebster - January 18, 2011 at 06:31 pm

I won't let your scrutiny debase my blog comment (blog comment, not academic thesis). Maybe my post came off a bit harsh, however I stand firm in my argument. Professor Major is egotistical and still self-righteous. I mean, look at his third sentence: "If I could have, I would have taken their Internet access, too, just to see the looks on their faces."

I'm not denying that taking their cell phones is a good idea. I think it's a grand idea. It's his underlying motivation that is the problem. He speaks without moral character or concern.

And I'm also sticking with his stigma of younger generations. His treatment of the "American student" is a blanket term that I believe doesn't apply to good students. But maybe he has second rate students.

32. aisoc - January 18, 2011 at 11:29 pm

@ momosgarage

What is your point? You seem angry that Major offered extra credit to his students (all of whom may be traditional students) because....?

If you are afraid that non-traditional students would be excluded, you are making a large assumption on Major's character, flexibility, and compassion. He may be a very nice guy willing to make exceptions for that one student who is a full-time consultant and needs a mobile more than anything.

If you are just angry that you have to have a mobile for your job, then you are really barking up the wrong tree. This ec assignment in the context of an English lit class.

Besides, just thinking of my social cirle, there are many different expectations for job and mobile communications use.

33. goxewu - January 18, 2011 at 11:31 pm

"I won't let your SCRUTINY DEBASE my blog comment." [Emphases mine.] This isn't the difference between a blog comment and an academic thesis, this is a D-minus in ESL.

When Prof. Miller says, "If I could have, I would have taken their Internet access, too, just to see the looks on their faces," it's hyperbole. (Clue: The voluntary cell-phone deprivation had something to do with Thoreau and extra-credit, while pulling the plug on Web access is "just to see the looks on their faces." That's obvious deliberate overstatement.) kwwebster bit on it so hard I could hear the "chomp!" in my surge protector. (No, not literally. I wouldn't want kwwebster calling the electrical inspectors on me. Whew!)

"I'm not denying that taking their cell phones is a good idea. I think it's a grand idea. It's his underlying motivation that is the problem. He speaks without moral character or concern." So now taking the cell phones (and Prof. Major didn't TAKE them; he merely ACCEPTED the ones offered to him voluntarily for extra credit) is a "grand idea" to kwwebster. The problem is that Prof. Major speaks "without moral character." And here I didn't think #22 could be exceeded in the overreaction category. (Congratulations of a perverse sort are in order.) If kwwebster would read Prof. Major's whole essay, take in the rhetorical tone and its purposes (one of which is to be a lively piece of writing), take a couple of deep breaths, and stop having paroxysms of moral outrage at such shorthand constructions as "American student" (it's a blog post, not a sociology paper), it'd be clear to him/her that Prof. Major is sardonically expressing a very moral concern for his students.

34. aisoc - January 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm

@ kwwebster

The problem with your blog comment is that is based on a post facto musing by Major. The students seemed panicked by the proposal (yet, they still decided to go along with it) but in the end, the results are harmless. Given that:

"Inspired, however, by Henry David Thoreau's calls for simplicity and solitude, I have, for the past few years, conducted a classroom experiment"

He has built up this reaction to the initial hysteria over the past few years. If bad things actually did happen due to the experiment, then the direction of article would be different.

The results run contrary to the initial expectations of the students. This is what is interesting about this piece and the potential for the future. Perhaps, the same experiment in twenty years will offer tragic results instead of what Major's class discovered. Maybe he'll continue to do this and have to adjust his preconceptions before offering the extra credit.

35. collegemomof4 - January 19, 2011 at 12:37 am

I love the simplicity of this. I realize we live in a digital age and depend so much on cell phones but I was around when we didn't have them and we survived. I have days when I don't answer my cell phone, if it's important enough, they'll leave a message. I have panicked when I left my phone at home and I hated that I depend on it so much. I think I'll send out a text to my usual callers to let them know I'm alive and then turn it off for a day or two. I can hear the peace and quiet now.

36. not_a_luddite - January 19, 2011 at 06:51 am

I think that most everyone here, including this author, is missing the point. First, many people do not have landlines any more. Second, most students who are not the children of the well-to-do have jobs. Third, most student jobs are menial and require that the students be available to answer their employers when the employer texts or phones.

Remember back in the day when poor people could not get jobs unless they had telephones and would hide them in the closet when the case worker came over, lest they lose their benefits because of their part-time, as-needed work? That is what we are talking about--people who have part-time, as-needed jobs. A person who does not have a cellphone and cannot respond to job offers doesn't get job offers--even a lapse of a couple of days will cost that student work that s/he needs in order to pay for his/her classes. Unless they are in dorms that provide landlines, they don't bother getting them--they use their computers to Skype and they use their cell phones for everything else. Seriously, why pay for a land line when it is obsolete?

Also, the good doctor is completely forgetting that, back in the day, young women did not travel by themselves after nightfall. Well, "nice girls" did not. Cell phones offer young women a safety net which allows them to be more free than they were back in the day. I would never encourage a young woman to give up her cell phone. In fact, had something happened to one of the students, and s/he was unable to summon help because s/he had surrendered his/her cell phone, the good doctor (and the school) might be liable.

The good doctor is also completely insane if he actually thinks that all these students gave up their cell phones. Many of those who surrendered their phones--if they are the children of the well-to-do--simply went out and got a temporary, inexpensive phone (much like the one those students who work for a living have) and used the same phone number or borrowed someone else's phone. They gave up their *iPhones,* not their cell phones. While they were writing their completely insincere notes about doing without cell phones, they were texting their friends from their alternative phone. They might have had fewer features on the temp phone--but it is crazy to think that they were being sincere.

I would never in a million years give an extra credit assignment which so favored the children of the well-to-do. Those of you who don't understand the lives of students who scramble to pay their bills might do well to get a menial job for a while and find out what their lives are like. You are Marie Antoinettes who are telling students to "give up their cake"--when you don't realize that you are taking unnecessary cake away from some (which is healthy) but asking others to give up their daily bread.

Yes, there is a serious schism here between the rich and the poor (and the male and the female)--and your elitism is showing, Dr. Major.

37. music_librarian - January 19, 2011 at 09:22 am

Re: the safety issue, there were a lot more pay phones around in the pre-cell phone days than there are now. If your car broke down in the 1970s, you stood a reasonable chance of finding a nearby pay phone from which you could summon help. Today that's a lot harder to do.

As for the "students can use their land lines" arguments, some schools are doing away with land lines in dormitories precisely because "all students have cell phones."

38. washingtonwarrior - January 19, 2011 at 09:26 am

music_librarian - yes, finding a pay phone while stranded on the side of the road is difficult, but every passerby has cell phone. Crisis diverted...

39. goxewu - January 19, 2011 at 10:03 am

Another, "Jeez, folks."

Prof. Major offers an extra-credit addendum for one class assignment (reading Thoreau's "Walden," not for the whole semester) that involves no real work, just doing without a cell phone for 120 hours, and all this Chicken-Little-ism falls from the clear blue sky. Students's safety is at stake, working students will be fired, wealthy students who can do without their cell phones because they don't have bosses calling and males without cell phones are somehow privileged over poor females without cell phones, Prof. Major is "playing God" and speaks "without moral character and concern," Prof. Major is "Marie Antoinette...telling students to give up their cake" and thereby depriving some of them of "their daily bread." Whoa!

Again: one small extra-credit addendum to a single assignment within a single class that involves being without a device one could very well be without for five days for a plethora of other reasons, and there's a veritable avalanche on the comment thread of people raising objections because of statistically remotely possible dire consequences. As aisoc points out in #34, Prof. Major's been doing this for a while and, apparently, nothing bad has happened. (Or at least there's never been a headline in "The Informer" reading, "EXTRA-CREDIT ASSIGNMENT GETS STUDENT FIRED FROM PIZZERIA.")

Given the rampant panic and victim fetish on this thread, I'm surprised that Prof. Major wasn't pilloried for assigning "Walden" in the first place. You know, another dead white male author who didn't have a job that would have kept him from chillin' at the pond, who wrote something that subverts the industrial-consumer go-gettum that makes America great, who had his laundry done by an exploited female, etc., etc.

40. juli3528 - January 19, 2011 at 10:52 am

Solution: borrow roommate's phone. Call mom and dad and employer and let them know what's up, and give them roommate/friend's phone numbers as options to get in touch if an emergency happens. Crisis averted. There seems to be an assumption that our students completely lack creativity in how to solve the problem of no phone for 5 days. Guess what? When they forget to charge it/lose it/drop it in a pitcher of beer, they manage to figure out how to function for a few days without. Sounds like an interesting assignment that gets students out of their comfort zone and figure out how to manage a problem that they couldn't plan for in advance. Which would be a good life lesson.

41. podleskj - January 19, 2011 at 11:22 am

As a parent who has taken away a cell phone as part of 'grounding', I can tell you life doesn't come apart when you can't text. If my college student child told me they'd only be reachable via email or a friend's phone for a few days, I woudn't need to be worried if they didn't respond to a call immediately. As an employer of students, I would try to be flexible for a few days if one of them needed the extra credit. Perhaps having to talk to all of these folks (friends, family, employers, professors) to explain why they are 'unplugging' for a few days would lead to some actual communication between them.

42. hillyerenglish - January 19, 2011 at 11:37 am

Hi folks,

I'm the author of the column. I've been monitoring the comments for the past few days, and I want to thank everyone--even those who "abhor" me or my ideas (and give a big shout out to my defenders).

I thought a little extra information might be helpful. For the students who chose not to participate, I offered them a different e.c. assignment over the five days: they had to keep track of every penny they spent, what they spent it on, and, in the spirit of Thoreau, how much of their life went into the transaction. Several took me up on this offer, though not as many as with the cellphones.

I have no idea how many students went out and bought a phone as an end around. I don't think any did, and I don't think it matters.

It's true, of course, that many of my students are rich. Many, however, aren't. Many of them work (of the Starbucks kind, mostly). Hillyer College is extremely diverse in this way, and becoming moreso. Students who needed their phones for work--or who said they did--chose not to participate; many students didn't participate in either e.c. assignment for their own reasons.

As juli3528, goxewu and others point out, I'm trying to get the students out of their comfort zone, if only briefly. I have done this for a few years. Nothing "bad" has happened to the students, unless you count their having to spend some time with themselves.


43. cebryant - January 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I enjoyed this article, and the extra-credit assignment seems worthwhile. I agree that some advance notice might help students feel more comfortable participating.

I'm glad the author mentioned HDT's use of hyperbole. When I read Walden in high school in college, I didn't understand that HDT was using hyperbole for humerous and literary purposes. I thought he meant everything he said! I could not appreciate how much poetry the book entails.

Biographies of HDT showed me that, although HDT did enjoy solitude more than most and enjoyed solitude more than most, he never lived as a hermit, not even at Walden Pond. Most days, he walked to Concord, visited his family, read the newspapers, sent and received mail, and listened to the village gossip. Also, his family, friends, and admirers visited him at the pond. Although these visits were important to HDT, most such visits were not important to his book and so were not recorded there.

The extra-credit assignment is a good way to understand the meaning of the cellphone to its owner while allowing the use of other means of communication for a few days.

44. al_wallace - January 19, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I'm sure I'll get attacked for this, but I'll say it anyway. Most use of cell phones seems to fulfill a narcissism in us. The number of "important" phone conversations and text messages I have seen are precious few. Most are "what you doing? yeah, I'm in the grocery store..blah blah blah". Then tend to be narratives of existence and not much else. My wife bought me a cell phone years ago. I used it 2 days out of the year and lost it because it had been 8 months before I had an inclination to use it again and couldn't remember where I put it. She bought me another one and I lost it again for the same reason. Cell phone need is as manufactured as the need for cable television or a car. It just isn't so. Yes, I'm sure I'll hear a long list of times when the cell phone saved a life and I'm sure it does, but I have two small children and old parents and somehow I get by. My question for the author is what the assignment would be for the student that doesn't own a cell phone and doesn't want to? I have a couple of those students in my class now. For extra credit, do they have to succumb to the ball and chain of carrying around this stupid gadget with them at all times? Where they must make sure it is charged and has batteries? Must they carry the financial servitude of paying a monthly fee for it and trying to make sure it doesn't get stolen or they don't accidentally break it? Must they suffer the humiliation of having it go off in class or some other inappropriate time? Will they be forced to break up a live conversation with a human being to check some innane message on it? Will you require that they talk on it while driving? Will you force them to type inconsequential messages on tiny keyboards that are ergonomically inappropriate for the task? I can't imagine enough extra credit to make that worthwhile.

45. mdzehnder - January 19, 2011 at 01:49 pm

@momosgarage.....riiight. Because every human being who ever lived prior to 1998 or so was a "child without responsibilities." Sure. Tout the virtues of cellphones if you like, reject the assigment if its offered to you if you like, but don't make idiotic and patently false statements.

For the record, I didn't even get my first cellphone until my second year in college. I got rid of it shortly after graduating and haven't had one since. Nor do I have a landline in my house. I am happily married, have a responsible, well paying job, and have never felt the loss.

46. rusty_burger - January 19, 2011 at 02:07 pm

Yes, I have a cell phone.

Yes, I'm in my 50's.

No, I don't understand why today's college students (especially the women) carry their cell phone in their hand 24x7 !! I'm sure they sleep with it, take it in the shower, exercise with it, etc. You never know when that all-important text will arrive - "im at the library where r u?"

No, I don't understand why, when two friends are walking and talking together, and one phone goes off, it's perfectly acceptable to ignore your friend and answer the call or respond to the text message. Why is someone who is at a distance more important that someone right next to you?

As far as the emergency argument - how often does that happen?

47. drnels - January 19, 2011 at 03:34 pm

I teach at the same school as William, and I am curious about the point @mkrand makes about gender. Many of my female students use their cellphones for safety when walking across campus in the dark. I remind them that the cell phone should not distract them from their surroundings, but I know a lot of women who use their cell phones for their saftey. The rape statistics at our school are not as high as others, but rape still happens, and students need to think about such safety issues. William, did your students bring up those concerns?

Also, what about the single parents? Maybe many Hillyer students are not single parents, but I have many in my classes, especially night ones. There is usually a point at least once a semester when one gets a call and has to leave immediately, once because of a major car accident on I-91 that left her daughter on life support for a while. She had to get to the hospital fast to make some pretty serious decisisons.

Of course, as you say in your comment, these students could choose to do the other extra credit, but these are the two points that immediately came to mind that I would expect to hear from my students on our campus.

As for students concerned with students being alive if they don't hear from them in a couple of days, part of that may have to do with the streotypes of our campus' location. When there was that shooting at the McDonald's in Bloomfield, my students reported many hysterical phone calls from parents when it hit CNN. And a few students from our campus work at the Stop and Shop there until closing on weekends. I had one student who had to call her mother when she got home from work every Saturday night (or Sunday morning, I guess, after the store closed) because she hated that her daughter was working in that store in that location, especailly after that shooting.

48. washingtonwarrior - January 19, 2011 at 04:26 pm

al_wallace - you are my hero!

49. ejb_123 - January 19, 2011 at 04:32 pm

30. momosgarage wrote in Post 30: "Well ejb_123, get ready to have plenty of resignation letter ready for the future. If you think employers are not unspokenly requiring thier emplyees to have cell phones, than I don't think you are in any position to give career advice and should refrain from EVER doing so. Your mindset is hazardous to young peoples career goals and needs. I can't believe that people are actually trying to claim that modern employers do not expect employee's to be reachable by cell phone. Who the heck are you guys?"

Perhaps it is because I live on the Great Plains. Many places have very limited cell phone service, and people out here generally respect one's privacy outside of the working hours. I suppose if I lived in some congested urban area such as on one of the North American coasts, it may be a different situation. Perhaps in congested and urban areas people do not have much respect for privacy, for self-reliance, and for people having personal lives outside of work?

50. drgarysgoodman - January 20, 2011 at 08:26 am

As the chair lift ascended, my right pocket vibrated and thigh pulsed. At about 7,000 feet, my wife was telling me it was her turn to ski, and mine to frolic with our toddlers.

The next day, she forgot her cell and we accomplished much the same thing the old fashioned way--by ESP.

McLuhan was wrong. The medium is not the message, or the mass-age, mess-age, or the massage. "How" is irrelevant.

The only question is, are we really getting through to each other?

51. momosgarage - January 20, 2011 at 10:53 am

@mdzehnder: "For the record, I didn't even get my first cellphone until my second year in college. I got rid of it shortly after graduating and haven't had one since. Nor do I have a landline in my house. I am happily married, have a responsible, well paying job, and have never felt the loss"

Pending on how old you are and how far along your career is, the only apt punishment I hope you recieve is that a future employer hands you a company cell phone. Good luck with your philosophy and wishfull thinking then.

@ejb_123: "Perhaps it is because I live on the Great Plains"

I recall saying "lucky you". That would imply that you have successfully evaded a modern responsibility that was thrown upon modern workers. Hope this situations lasts for your sake.

52. goxewu - January 20, 2011 at 01:40 pm

Because I'm not a full-time college professor anymore, I decided to ask somebody who is (tenured, with fantastic student evaluations) about the business of students being in grave danger of being fired from their jobs if they're unreachable by cell phone for five days. This professor said, "Ridiculous! Half my students have jobs, and if there's a shift change at the Subway shop, it'll be communicated by e-mail or a message at the dorm. Or, for five days, they can phone into work from another phone after class and ask if anything's up. This is a non-problem."

I think the verdict is in regarding momsogarage and #19. It's (b).

53. drakelibguy - January 20, 2011 at 03:54 pm

It's interesting how almost all the comments around this interesting experiment revolve around the MEANS that the benighted students were subjected to, and almost none (incl. the author's) around the END of the experiment, and that is, to have students actually experience solitude for even a short time! As HDT said, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind," and apparently nowhere is this seat in the saddle so steady as American academia.

To paraphrase Pascal, "All man's miseries stem from his inability to sit in a room alone and do nothing." Those who oppose Major's experiment on the grounds that this "thing" called a cellphone is indispensible are in fact making his point for him! This device is handy, yes; useful on many occasions, no doubt; but, it is ultimately just One More Thing. So, those who are unalterably opposed to this experiment might consider this: How ELSE is a teacher going to get across the point that solitude is, in fact, a worthwhile option? Seriously, I'd love to hear other ways this can be accomplished!

54. momosgarage - January 20, 2011 at 04:19 pm

@goxewu "Half my students have jobs, and if there's a shift change at the Subway shop, it'll be communicated by e-mail or a message at the dorm"

Well, it looks like someone failed to make note of what I really said. A "non-traditional" student does NOT live in a dorm and does NOT work at Subway nearby campus.

Re-read comment 36 by not_a_luddite, it perfectly articulates what i have obviously have failed to communicate.

55. pwherry - January 20, 2011 at 04:29 pm

Thank you, drakelibguy. I to am fascinated that all the commentary has focused on the means rather than the end of the experiment. I recall my first challenging bit of solitude. It came after my junior year in college (back in the era of vinyl record albums, ergo pre-cellphone) when I suddenly went from having a roommate or two around all the time to having only a cat. And it must have been in that time between spring semester and summer session (remember when we used to have that, too, instead of starting a summer session the Monday after graduation?) because part of what freaked me out was the lack of structure. I had no one to talk to (except the cat) and no compulsion about what to do next. It made me extremely uncomfortable for a couple of days, and then I began to like it and value it.

I'm not sure it's a generational issue, though it IS an age thing. It seems to be a part of maturing to be able to, in the quote from Pascal, "sit in a room alone and do nothing." I applaud the experiment as an effort to compel an understanding of solitude. I worry about the younger people in my extended family who have never had to spend any significant amount of time alone. Prof. Major and honey-bee (#16) are onto something important. I applaud them.

56. ejb_123 - January 21, 2011 at 07:28 am

drakelibguy wrote in post 53: "It's interesting how almost all the comments around this interesting experiment revolve around the MEANS that the benighted students were subjected to, and almost none (incl. the author's) around the END of the experiment, and that is, to have students actually experience solitude for even a short time!"

Solitude is over-rated. I know that American writers (particularly nature writers), from Thoreau straight through to Annie Dillard, Henry Beston, and Edward Abbey all praise solitude and "being alone with the Alone" (whatever one wants to identify the "Alone" with a capital "A" as) but I think that the Japanese, Marxists, and even Benedictine monks have it right -- i.e., that being part of a community is far more important, far more profound, and far more enlightening than being a lone individual like Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness or an Egyptian monk in the Inner Mountain.

57. greenhills73 - January 21, 2011 at 01:03 pm

We bought our teenage daughter her first cell phone to be used for "emergencies." We bought the cheapest (around $20/mo) plan at the time. She managed to rack up around $300 worth of "emergencies" a month for the next several months, although, oddly, not one of those calls was to her parents. Emergencies - really? We cancelled the phone.

I have never owned a cell phone. I am the only one in my family not to carry one, and it is a personal choice. I am blissfully unaware of the idea of panicking if it is taken way. About half a dozen times a year, I think it would be "convenient" if I had one, but not really necessary. I have a good, full-time job, but I am an hourly employee, not a salaried one. If my employer expected me to be "on call" during what are considered my off times, I would expect to be paid for that time.

I totally agree that ignoring people next to you for those who contact you via cell phone is just a sign of the rudeness that is so prevalent in today's society, and the cell phones just make it that much easier to be rude.

If my college son called me every day, I would start wondering what was wrong that he was hiding. When he doesn't answer his cell phone, I assume he has it turned off, forgot to charge it, or lost it - which happens a lot, I am told. Fortunately for him, when he does call me, my landline phone is never turned off, uncharged or lost.

I'll get a cell phone when I feel I need one. So far, I haven't felt that way.

58. drakelibguy - January 21, 2011 at 05:08 pm

post 56. ejb_123 wrote: "Solitude is over-rated. .... being part of a community is far more important, far more profound, and far more enlightening."

I appreciate your argument, ejb_123, esp. the fact that it is actually an ACADEMIC argument (unlike most of the previous comments, which revolved around whether a specific Gadget was, or wasn't, necessary for life. To be clear: NO gadget is necessary to sustain life; and the Japanese Zen tradition would be the first to support that)

As to ejb's point, I won't refute or support, simply say that unless one occasionally Experiences solitude, one is not qualified to say whether it has personal value, or not; and Gadgets are primarily devices to ensure that even when one is Alone, an individual should never experience the terror of actually living with nothing but...one's own thoughts.

Thus, I can certainly say that the view from the summit of Everest is overrated; but I doubt I'd be taken seriously if I've never been at an altitude higher than 3000 feet.

59. goxewu - January 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

Re #54:

Re #54:

momosgarage invokes "non-traditional student" as a hyper-elastic term to mean any student who for any reason cannot meet the terms of a given class assignment, even a minor extra-credit one. "Well, what about the single parent of four who has to work two shifts in a row, six days a week, and has to take a full load and a half to keep up with the terms of a student loan, and also wears an electronic ankle bracelet due to being under house arrest as a parking-ticket scofflaw, the probabtion for which requires constant cell-phone availability to the probabtion officer? How will THAT student be able to complete the assignment, huh, HUH!?"

Look, some student will always fall outside the bounds of for whom any assignment is tailored. Prof. Major probably has one or two students at most whose "non-traditional" status requires them to maintain absolute cell-phone availability to an employer. He's been giving the voluntary assignment for a while and, he says, nothing untoward has happened because of it. momosgarage's argument against Prof. Major's assignment is, essentially, a red herring.

Easy, big fella.

60. ejb_123 - January 22, 2011 at 06:30 pm

drakelibguy wrote in post 58: "As to ejb's point, I won't refute or support, simply say that unless one occasionally Experiences solitude, one is not qualified to say whether it has personal value, or not."

That is an important point. I know that I have only experienced solitude for very brief periods of my life (the longest I've ever gone without seeing another human being is only 3 weeks), so no, I am not an authority on solitude and probably should not so hastily judge it as over-rated. Perhaps if I were to experience a prolonged solitude (such as that of a few years or a few decades) I may feel differently about solitude, but in the 21st century, the ability to live this kind of solitude is extremely difficult -- not just because of geographical and population-density factors, but also because of social, ecomonic, and financial obligations.

61. swagato - January 23, 2011 at 05:40 pm

I find I have mixed reactions to this experiment.

Before I say anything else, I will mention that I am 23, and a male graduate student in the humanities. I own a cellphone, an iPad, and a laptop. I am constantly 'plugged in' to the media via diverse means: Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, etc.

Why? Is it absolutely essential to my life that I receive breaking news the moment it is reported? No. This post made me pause and think about how I got to this point where, from the moment I wake, I am immersed in a heterogenous media that is constantly receiving stimuli, and, in turn, affecting me. It seems to be a gradual shift. I got my first computer in 1999, in India. Hardly comparable to the sort of perennial technological paradise we're living in today. Over time, however, I became acclimatised to having access to all the things that the computer makes possible (I'm leaving out phones and iPad-like devices because, at core, cellphones and tablets are increasingly taking on the roles of multi-function compact computers). Need to look something up spontaneously? Done. Need to make a random note? Done. Stuck at the grocer's and forgotten your shopping list? Look up the recipe you were going to make and copy the list of ingredients to your email. Look up your email a moment later; done. Essentially, I find myself using the various manifestations of 'plugged-in' technology to have a drastically broadened scope of access to my environment.

Bernard Stiegler in his essay, "Memory" (Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen, UChicago Press) describes this gradual shift best. His essay essentially describes an increasingly externalised existence where we 'outsource' innately human actions (eg., remembering the phone number of a friend in your own mind) to an external agent (entering the number into your cellphone and forgetting about it). My own thoughts are that we, at least in the USA, have reached a point where we have become unconscious about such externalisations even as we engage in them. Hence the generalised and pervasive sense of 'disconnection', loss, 'fear', or vague paranoia. Statistically speaking, it is highly unlikely that an emergency would have occurred during the period Prof. Major asked for. Yet, for me, it would be impossible to escape that paranoia simply because of how entrenched the sense of 'being aware of the world' is, thanks to remaining continually in sync with news feeds.

To oppose this trend, I feel, is to go about it the wrong way. It is not something to be opposed. Many of the comments seem to view this shift (may I call it generational?) with a vitriolic air. Why? It is certainly not bad to have more frequent access to information. Information overload is a valid concern, but all these devices offer plentiful ways to reduce 'noise'. Leave your phone on vibrate and it'll never bother an ongoing class. Screen your calls and you won't get unwanted telemarketing calls. The list is endless. Refusing to understand a change and reacting mulishly to it is one thing. Attempting to engage with a change and exploring its dialectic is quite another. I approve of Prof. Major's attempt to demonstrate what Thoreau had in mind, but I'm just not sure it is something we should return to en masse.

62. ellenhunt - January 24, 2011 at 01:04 pm

Students get their phones stolen or lose them all the time. I've found quite a number on campus and I always return them, much to the astonishment of the owners, all of whom so far have been female. (Why is that? Are females more prone to phone loss? Are they "losing" them on purpose so mummy and duddy will buy dem a new wun? Inquiring minds want to know. Inquiring minds are also suspicious due to several young females being less than overjoyed to receive said phones back.)

There is a significant black market in stolen phones. I had mine stolen a while back, a nice new model. I checked out the economics of it, and a student who steals an average of one phone per day can sell the phone for a low of $20 and a high of about $200. One enterprising student was coming by to collect old cell phones from recycling donations. Further, there is little or no involvement by law enforcement. If a phone disappears, students just get another one.

So I'm not concerned. I strongly suspect that many of the remarks written for Majors' class are complete BS. I say this because I was, myself, once a sciences student sentenced to such classes and remember asking a roommate, "How does this sound? Is it too over the top?" to much hilarity. Not that I didn't learn anything in class. My prose did improve, although its veracity took a dive in this period. I did not consider reports on my personal life to fall into the same ethical category as reporting on lab results or the accuracy of statistical calculations.

I am, though, rather amused by this "momosgarage" character. Dear me fella. You could call in to your employer explaining the assignment. Or, you could check into what your prof is likely to do in classes and have a dead phone to turn in. Thimk, it'll do you good. ;-)

For myself, I would at least try to get with the spirit of it. I'd go up to the prof and say something like, "Um. I didn't bring mine to class because I'm not into distractions. So can I go get it?" He'd probably say yes, and then I'd show up at his office with a charged but useless phone. After that, I'd text all bothersome text-bots back that I wasn't texting for 3 days, once, and set my employer's ring to a special tone so I would know.

I think it's a way cool assignment. What a wonderful excuse to shut up the driveling text-bot girls and their endless endlessness of nothing at all, at least for a few days.

Of course, I don't think that I am in the target demographic of Prof Majors. I'd do the extra credit anyway, just because I'd want to be sure of cementing an A in concrete. But I already minimize. I do understand a bit though. I can actually relate to that worry about whether I'll know if a certain person I love is still alive. I am a worry-wart and my wart is fueled by my samsung Jack phone. And I do like the keyboard so I can do real messages if I want to...

Hmmm. Maybe I'm more hooked than I thought. Aiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

63. philosophotarian - January 24, 2011 at 01:56 pm

for someone so tied to his/her cellphone, called at all hours of the day or night, momosgarage has an awful lot of time to post here, ranting about how easy everyone else in the whole world has it because they do not have their time so totally taken up by their employers...

I think the extra credit assignment sounds great. I am less plugged in than a lot of my peers, but I can tell you that I would be pretty bummed to have to give up text-messaging the boyfriend.

64. nancymhall - January 24, 2011 at 02:34 pm

I think it sounds like an excellent assignment as well, especially since it's optional and for extra credit. The naysayers on here might have a leg to stand on if this was a required assignment that students' grades depended upon.

I was a student 10+ years ago, in the pre-cell phone days. We didn't even have high-speed internet provided in our dorm my freshman year! (Shocking, I know.) These devices are not as necessary as we all like to believe. Even in the case of an emergency or attack, the cell phone is not going to *prevent* such things. It might mean help is faster in coming. Might.

When my husband and I married 8 years ago, we had cell phones and no land line, but switched that for a cheaper landline. In the days when all we had were cell phones, my mother thought that meant we were always available to be called. If I didn't answer the phone, for whatever reason, she panicked. Is this reasonable? A landline can go unanswered for a number of reasons - no one's home, too far away to get there in time, etc. - but cell phones only too quickly make us too accessible. They are convenient, but not necessary.

Then again, I'm a person who craves my "alone time." Weekends with my husband and son home can drive me crazy until I can have my solitude on Monday morning.

I do take issue with a commenter's statement that "NO gadget is necessary to sustain life." As a person with type 1 diabetes whose life IS sustained by my insulin pump, I beg to disagree. Even if you wish to argue that I do not *need* a pump, I would still need at least the "gadget" called a syringe in order to survive.

65. momprof - January 24, 2011 at 08:05 pm

It's funny that we sometimes complain about the loss of human interaction in the modern world, and then talk as if the constant use of cell phones to stay in touch with loved ones is neurotic behavior. While I think it's important to teach students that etiquette and respect require you to pay attention to the live people you are with, not to the one who just texted you, I also think we can learn from them about staying in touch and valuing minor reaffirmations from friends and family. I don't consider it a sign of virtue or independence that I only speak with my parents every week or two; I think it would be nice if we had more frequent chats, even if they were trivial. In other words, I don't think it's only the students who need to become aware of, and perhaps reconsider, their assumptions and priorities.
--momprof, a 50-ish cellphone doofus who can barely answer the thing and sends about one text a year

66. asongbird - January 25, 2011 at 10:40 am

I don't get it.
--how about the main point?

Silence...the experience of interior silence and space...was the goal.

The cell phone ban was simply a technique, not the main point.

but this gives me an opportunity to also express a worry I've had for a long, long time:

--why are the students SO afraid of solitude? everything is relentlessly group-oriented...they can't seem to do ANYTHING without doing it in groups. I do not think this is healthy.

67. wclibrary - January 25, 2011 at 11:13 am

Concerning Thoreau and the news: Once he "saw the day break from the top of Saddle-back Mountain in Massachusetts," a towering and inaccessible place that's presumably untouched by man back in the 1840s, but where Thoreau comes across . . . litter. "I sat up during the evening, reading by the light of the fire the scraps of newspaper in which some party had wrapped their luncheon," not at all nonplussed by the leavings but enjoying their most ephemeral and quotidian parts: "I read these things at a vast advantage there, and it seemed to me that the advertisements, or what is called the business part of a paper, were greatly the best, the most useful, natural, and respectable. . . . The advertisements, as I have said,. . . suggested pleasing and poetic thoughts; for commerce is really as interesting as nature" (A Week on the Concord and Merrrimack Rivers, pp. 221, 228, 229). And then there's that proto cell phone call that Jane receives from Rochester close to the end of Jane Eyre, without which the lovers would never have been reunited. Don't look to Thoreau or the Brontes or to any other of the so-called romantics for support for condeming modern information technology. They're all of them the mothers and fathers of modern information technology.

68. lovessolitude - January 25, 2011 at 04:20 pm

I think this is a good idea to help the children understand that they CAN live without technology, but it's been poorly executed.

I didn't grow up with much tech, and refuse to be governed by it, so I support the idea of having the kids go without for a few days. However, I would argue that our reactions to fear have simply changed and tech makes people more independant. Before there were cell phones, women walked in groups for safety, if you couldn't find people to walk with you, you didn't walk. Before they walked in groups, they carried guns. Thumbing it used to be safe, it no longer is. Breaking down on the freeway is different - the sheriff won't stop for troubled cars anymore and if a semi pulls over - lock the doors! Even campus security will make you walk to them to get a jump box rather than taking it to the parking lots. Society now assumes that it's people are armed and protected by their phones.

Be responsible about the assignment. Do the exercise, but let students plan ahead of time for it. Provide safety guidelines (like don't walk alone at night on campus), and don't go on trips without other people in case you break down. And if you are arrogant and taking superiority over your students because they won't give up their phones -- then shame on you, for being a danger to your students.

69. sawdrew - January 26, 2011 at 08:20 pm

OK I will add my bit - I must be the archetypal dinosaur as a male baby boomer Prof (Business) who grew up without cell phones. However I now own and use three of them including an iphone and regularly use all the technology including social networks and skype (I trained in software and as an electronic engineer). However cell phones are one of my pet peeves because they make people careless and distracted. I am sick of students getting off elevators and walking into me because they don't look and are on a cell phone. I also don't care to listen to half of someone's inane conversation carried out at high volume and oblivious to my presence. What happened to manners and respect for others? I understand the arguments of female students about safety - totally agree. However I have seen with my own eyes on my commute to work a young driver lose control of his vehicle, crash and sadly killed because of texting/phone. The news article later showed he was a single father of a disabled young child. I also come from Europe and regularly travel in countries where texting/phoning while driving is illegal and heavily fined. We havent learned how to handle these technologies safely and many people are simply fools in thinking they can safely drive and text/phone. The conversations we should have with students should not be about banning or not using cell phones but about using the technology responsibly and with respect to people in your surroundings. I applaud this professor for taking this issue up with students and getting them to think about it.

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