The Longest Day

By Danna L. Walker
Sunday, August 5, 2007

I WAS WONDERING IF I COULD REALLY PULL IT OFF, making undergraduates do without any kind of electronic media for 24 hours. I hesitated as I wrote the assignment painstakingly into my 14-page syllabus for the spring semester. The syllabus is considered a contract with the students. If the assignment is there, they can't get around it.

If it's there, it's gospel. So, I put it in.

This would be a good way, I thought, to get students in my "Understanding Mass Media" class at American University to think about the media-saturated world they live in and what its effects on them might be. I wondered if they would balk, or even refuse to do it.

Their faces looked skeptical when we finally got to the e-media fast about halfway through the semester. No television, computers, iPods or other MP3 devices, radio, video games, CD players, records or cellphones (or land lines) for 24 hours. If they slipped up or cheated -- and I said with faked confidence that I'd be able to tell from their papers if they did -- they'd have to start the 24 hours over. I gave them the option of doing the fast during spring break, to make it easier and to see how their family and friends would interact with the assignment. They were to write a short report about their experience and include a reflection on the assigned reading, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by the late New York University communications professor Neil Postman.

I stepped down from the podium in the dimly lit and cavernous Wechsler Theater, where my class is held, to stand in the center aisle among my students -- the better to look them in the eye if they challenged me.

"No cellphones?" they asked in pleading voices, looking around at one another with wide eyes and open mouths.

"How are cellphones media?" another student protested, but she could sense that resistance was futile. We had talked ad nauseam in class about how individuals' use of digital devices, including cellphone photos, video and texting, has created an army of unconventional citizen journalists who have borne witness to the 9/11 attacks, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and more, changing the face of journalism through their media watchdogging blogs and online social networks.

"I'll be doing it, too," I offered reassuringly. A few seconds of silence ensued as they appeared to consider whether that made a difference. A crescendo of audible desperation followed.

"When we're driving around, we can't listen to the radio?" a student asked.

"No," I said as steadfastly as I could.

"It's only for, like, 24 hours, right?" asked a student near the back.

"Yes," I said quickly. Then came the moment when my growing experience with college students paid off.

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