Professor Assigns Students to 'E-Fast'

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American University journalism professor Danna Walker talks about assigning her students to go on a 24-hour electronic media fast — avoiding anything clicked, plugged-in or charged.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Imagine trying to function without your cell phone or mp3 player, your computer, your television, or video games. Could you do it? Well, one journalism professor at American University decided to find out. Danna Walker assigned a 24-hour media fast, which meant her students couldn't consume anything that clicked or plugged in or charged. No electronics, period. And to share in that torture, she fasted too. Professor Danna Walker joins us in the studio today to tell us how it went. Welcome.

Professor DANNA WALKER (Journalism, American University): Thank you.

CORLEY: All right. Well, Dr. Walker, tell us first how you got this idea.

Prof. WALKER: I'd like to say that it hit me like a bolt of lightning, and it was - I was inspired by my own thoughts, but I had actually read about it. One of the books that I have for my class was "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman, and I was reading the introduction to it. It mentioned that there was another professor in the country who had done this. And I thought, wow, that sounds interesting. Do I have the guts to do it?

CORLEY: Why the guts to do it?

Prof. WALKER: I knew that my students would balk. It took a certain amount of courage to make them do it.

CORLEY: Well, the responses from students are pretty telling about how much electronics influence our lives. Can you share some of those responses with us? And do you feel that the students - any of the students were isolated?

Prof. WALKER: The students were very candid, and I was really gratified by what they said. I had them write papers about their experience and relate their experience to this book, which talks about kind of the overindulgence in America in electronic media. The book really talks about television, but we expanded it to include all electronic media. And they really gave it a lot of thought. And a lot of them, even during the fast, read the book. It seemed to resonate with them. They vented a little bit about how hard it was, and I think they were very surprised at how addicted they were. And they called it addiction, and they were surprised at some of the good things that happened to them during the fast.

CORLEY: Well, you took the challenge too, as I understand it.

Prof. WALKER: Yes, I did. I wanted to be in there with them.

CORLEY: And how did you do?

Prof. WALKER: It was very difficult, I must say. I think - I keep telling myself it must have been more difficult for them because they're more plugged in than I am. It was an awakening for me at how totally immersed I had become over the years. And I felt, at times, sort of alienated, a bit alone. At times I felt like I was on vacation. No one could find me. A little invisible, you know, got a little bit giddy every now and then that no one could see me.

CORLEY: And this was only for 24 hours.

Prof. WALKER: It was just for 24 hours, yeah. I didn't want to torture them too much.

CORLEY: I'm speaking with Danna Walker. She is a professor at American University, a professor of journalism, and she challenged students to an e-media fast. Do you know which device was the hardest for the students to give up?

Prof. WALKER: You know, that's a great question. I thought that it would be the cell phone. And a lot of students did talk about that. But I was surprised. Different students had different vices, you know, media vices that were most important to them, and it varied. Many students are totally tied to their computers. They, you know, turn them on the minute they get up in the morning and keep them on all day. Others almost couldn't function without their cell phones. And others really missed just watching TV. They said they really zoned out in front of TV a lot, and that bothered them.

CORLEY: What did the students tell you they ended up doing during those 24 hours?

Prof. WALKER: They had to be very creative. They really did. They sat down and really thought about what they were going to do. And I would say virtually all of them planned ahead of time - well, at this moment in time, when I start my e-media fast, this is what I'm going to do. A lot of them slept. College students really like that fact. So they tried to sleep as much as they could. They went out to eat a lot, and they played board games with their families and read books and kind of took care of themselves. They worked in the yard - all kinds of things that I think that will make parent's heart swell when they hear this.

CORLEY: Well, you are a journalism professor. I was wondering if any of your students went out and picked up a newspaper.

Prof. WALKER: They did. I had one student who said I went out and actually bought a newspaper. It was a very strange experience. A lot of the ones who do follow the news, follow it online. And they actually thought that the newspaper got stale for them. That was a very interesting thing for me to learn.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Overall, what do you think this experiment says about our society, if anything?

Prof. WALKER: Wow, that's a big question.

CORLEY: Yeah.

Prof. WALKER: I think that, really, what I was trying to do was get the students to think about their day-to-day interaction. It told me that we're all really hooked in to electronic media. What got me thinking about it a lot was that when I was teaching and talking about different types of media, I realized that my students don't think of it that way. It's all one big media world. And so I think by doing the e-media fast, they were able to differentiate more between media.

CORLEY: Do you plan to do this again with other classes?

Prof. WALKER: I have thought about it and thought about it. I'm not sure yet. I haven't decided. I probably will, but I probably won't do it right away.

CORLEY: Because it was touch for you, too.

Prof. WALKER: It was a little tough for me, and I'm thinking, too, that, you know, word of mouth with students - I don't know. I want to save it up a little bit. Shock them again at some future point.

CORLEY: All right. Danna Walker is a professor in residence at American University. She teaches journalism. Thanks for coming in.

Prof. WALKER: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: And what about you out there? Think you could ever go on a so-called media fast? No computer, no television, no cell phone? I guess TELL ME MORE might just have to do the show from your living room. That's the only way you could hear us. Go to our blog and let us know what you think about the idea of going on a media fast, or tell us about a challenging fast you've attempted -media, food, whatever. Just visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore.

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