Intersession Solitude

Saint Mary's College of California challenges students to a technology fast during an interim term course on the benefits of disconnecting from social media.

January 15, 2015

Students at Saint Mary’s College of California are this month challenged to “Disconnect, Power Off and Unplug” in an interim term course that requires them to sign out of social networks and rediscover “The Lost Art of Solitude.”

The course, now in its second year, aims to help students achieve a better balance between contemplative alone time and the time they spend interacting with the connected world online. To help students see the benefit of the former, however, the course asks they agree to drastically cut down on their use of computers, smartphones and TV -- a monthlong social media fast.

“There is a ton of writing happening right now on this topic -- that we’re overconnected, stressed out, information overloaded [and] how it makes us less satisfied and impacts leadership,” said Linda Saulsby, adjunct professor of communication and liberal studies. “How are we going to cope with it?”

The course isn’t a complete blackout. Students agreed on a daily 30-minute block during which they can catch up on email and make phone calls, and -- since all seven are working adults -- they can also answer important calls from work or home outside that time. But the 30 minutes have to be spent in one sitting, meaning students spend the remaining 23 hours and 30 minutes of the day unplugged.

To occupy time that would normally have been spent online, students read and discuss texts on the impact of technology, go on field trips to the Muir Woods and Ocean Beach, meditate and reflect on their experiences in a personal journal and a series of papers -- which are handwritten, of course.

Saulsby last semester advertised the course by posting flyers around campus that read “Discover Yourself.”

“That’s what this class is about,” Saulsby said.

Courses such as “Disconnect, Power Off and Unplug: The Lost Art of Solitude” are part of a counter-culture movement pushing back against calls to cover every corner of campus with connectivity. IT offices have for years been urged to expand internet accessibility out of computer labs and into classrooms, dorms and dining halls -- but also to areas such as quads and stadiums. At some institutions, faculty and students are now asking for spaces where both wireless devices and coverage are banned.

Students at Wake Forest University, for example, last fall came up with the idea for a "ZieSta Room" in the library decorated with deep armchairs and charging lockers. All technology use and studying are banned from the room, but “Naps of all kinds are encouraged,” according to the room’s official instructions.

At Reed College, chief information officer Martin Ringle said he gets occasional requests from faculty members to create spaces on campus that wireless coverage can’t reach -- so-called “Walden zones,” named after Henry David Thoreau’s titular pond. Students and younger faculty members have opposed the idea, saying disconnecting is as simple as toggling the airplane mode switch, Ringle said.

“Faculty members say it’s not just that they don’t want connectivity, it’s that they want students and other people to experience what it’s like not to have connectivity,” Ringle said. “You’re so connected 24/7/365 that it’s changing the dynamic of the way people think, the way they reflect, the way they communicate with other people.”

For some of Saulsby’s students, their use of technology and social media bordered on an unhealthy obsession. “Some of them were compelled to take the class for that reason,” she said. “They realized they had an addiction and wanted us to do something about it.”

Students are regularly encouraged to admit who has been “using” -- a term invented during last year’s course -- beyond the predetermined 30 minutes a day. Still, Saulsby said, the course is not meant to be a rehab clinic.

“Not at all,” Saulsby said. “It’s more of a search for self. That’s based on the notion that until we stop, until we be still, until we have quiet and reflection, we won’t discover ourselves.”

Saulsby said she keeps in touch with students in last year’s cohort, some of whom permanently changed how they use technology after taking the interim term course.

“No one’s sticking to 30 minutes a day, but they’re so much more aware of their technology usage,” Saulsby said. “Four or five quit social media for good. In terms of using computers and their phones and even televisions, their habits are irreversibly changed.”

Students in this year’s cohort did not respond to a request for comment, possibly because they did not want to spent their 30-minute allocation of technology time on the phone with a reporter.


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