Avoiding New Media: Impossible?

July 28th, 2011 by Christian

(or: Are Media Fast Assignments Inherently Dishonest?)

I just received a fascinating comment in my teaching evaluations from last year.  On the back of the eval form there is a free-response section where people are invited to make constructive suggestions about the course.  The results are usually fascinating, but in a bad way. Or in a puzzling way.

For example, one student in a previous class complained extensively about the discussion sections in a course that didn’t have any. I’ve also been propositioned in Korean. There are compliments, yes, and insults.  But this particular comment I received made me pause.

In the course I teach at the University of Illinois titled, Communication Technology and Society, one of my assignments is a new media fast. Basically it is 24 hours without “new” media, with a short reflection on it followed by an in-class discussion about what happened. This was accompanied by readings about the Amish, the Luddites, and the Appropriate Technology movement.

Media fasts have been a part of media studies courses forever, but I gave this assignment because I was particularly influenced by David Silver’s attempts to teach media by getting away from them.  (I also got my definition of “new media” from this other fast assignment I found online.)  I’ve attached the full text of my assignment at the end of this post.

Here’s the anonymous comment I received that made me pause (slightly paraphrased):

Requiring a media fast is inherently dishonest. It is impossible for anyone to be away from media for this long, or at least it is so much easier to lie than to complete the assignment that you’ve done nothing more than incite dishonesty… among 100% of the class.

At the time, I thought some of the responses to the fast were interesting, even insightful.

One student noted that they had to ask everyone the time all day because the only clock they own is a Blackberry. Another student wrote “I feel like I’m being punished for something.”

Someone decided to define the microwave and dishwasher as “new media” and voluntarily fasted from using them as well.

A student had previously fasted for religion and compared the two experiences of doing without: they concluded that doing without media is harder than doing without food.  (I’m sure a longer fast would reverse the situation though.)

Now I’m going over these in my head and thinking… are all of these lies?  How many of these responses are fabricated? It’s true, it would be much easier to simply make up the response than to actually complete the fast. Is this assignment worth giving?

It may be that for the U.S. college student avoiding new media is functionally impossible… or at least unlikely to ever work as an assignment.



ASSIGNMENT: New Media Fast

Part I: Select your fast time. The word “fast” used in this context means “to abstain.” Choose a time frame between now and this assignment’s due date when you will be able to spend 24 consecutive hours without new media. State the time period that you chose. Be sure that the time period requires some adjustment to your lifestyle, but it should not make you lose your job or harm your work in another class. For instance, you might choose one evening and the following morning so that you are not offline for an entire day. (No fair choosing 24 hours when you would already not be using new media.)

Part II: Fast. For the purpose of this assignment, new media technology is being defined as anything that has become common among consumers since 1980. During your “new media fast,” do not use these technologies. Keep notes (with paper!) about the adjustments that you needed to make in order to stay honest to your fast.

Part III: Reflect. After the end of your fast, write a blog post reflecting on this experience. Make specific reference to at least one quote or concept discussed in lecture on 3/30 (on Technology Resistance) or in the C&T book, Ch. 5 or Ch. 6 in a way that demonstrates that you understand them. Please explain:

  • What you gave up.
  • How you did it.
  • What you did instead.
  • What was easiest and what was most difficult to forsake.
  • If you failed (i.e., used new media), what you did when you failed and why.
  • Your thoughts, emotions and feelings about the assignment as it began and evolved.
  • What you learned about your own media consumption habits.
  • How this relates to the ideas in the readings.

This assignment must be at least 300 words (about 1 page).

9 Responses to “Avoiding New Media: Impossible?”

  1. Documentary Site Says:

    I did this assignment as a student, but it was a more general “media fast” at the time. I found the assignment difficult because I worked in the newsroom for a daily newspaper and took media criticism courses during the days I wasn’t in the newsroom.

    As a teacher, I frame the assignment as a “media usage” one. I ask them to track their interactions with all forms of media for a 24-hour time period, and then ask for a similar reflection / reaction as you do. It garners quite a depth of reflection (most are surprised), and I have yet to receive any comments similar to the ones you express here.

  2. Christian Says:

    Thanks for this. Maybe usage is the way to go. I had to do a usage diary in a media class a long time ago.

    So… you didn’t lie about your fast then? Cheat a little? Exaggerate?


  3. david silver Says:

    great post Christian!

    i wish more professors and teachers shared their assignments. one day we will and all our courses will be that much better for it.

    i am gearing up for a somewhat similar assignment for intro to media studies, a class i’m teaching this fall. but instead of demanding my students “log off” for a period of time, i’m thinking about asking them to log off for as long as they can. for some students, this may mean, oh, 5-10 minutes. for others, a few hours. and hopefully one or two brave students will fast for at least a day. i’ll be sure to include some kind of reflection stage similar to yours. we’ll see.

    i’m still working out the details of this assignment and i will most likely ask for my students’ input prior to crafting it. but i will keep you posted.

    i’ve never thought of my teaching in the way you put it – “teach media by getting away from them” – but i love the description and will certainly steal it. =)

  4. simon Says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience! I must say, I find these students’ reactions hard to understand – and the complaints even a bit laughable.

    I’ve done some media fasting myself at times – I used to call it “computer free Friday”, and I would simply not use my computer for a day (not having a smartphone, that was my only new media source). I’ve always enjoyed how much this relaxed me – and how much reading I got done in this time! I am actually trying to get back to it as a weekly ritual.

    I can understand why some students might dislike such an assignment – if it’s forced, it’s almost surely less fun; and in some cases it might interfere with other courses. That said, I still think it’s a great idea for a course.

  5. Sandra Braman Says:

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting post, Christian. I’m in the category of those who have been assigning media fasts of one type or another essentially forever (well, since the early 1980s).

    In the mid-1990s, concerned that my-then University of Illinois-Urbana students who were so dependent on the network already would in fact be crippled in inappropriate ways by this type of assignment, however, I changed it. Instead, I asked for a week’s worth of a diary of every experience with a screen (computer, TV, movie, on the microwave, in sports training, in a store with advertising, wherever and whatever). The diary included not just a description of what was on the screen and how they related to it, but also ruminations on the role of the screens in many dimensions of their lives. Making this switch seemed to reduce the punishment and possible damage consequences of the experience, while opening up a situation that many, many students reported made them self-aware regarding their media use and their uses of such use for the first time.

  6. Christian Says:

    Thanks David and Sandra. FYI I received enough interesting email, DMs, FB comments, and blog comments about this post so far that I just wrote another post about an undergrad assignment I use in teaching new media: http://hvrd.me/nHAeMe

    My eyes are already all over your web stuff so this is in the spirit of sharing more assignments and ideas. Please rip me off! And let me continue to rip you off!

    Regarding your comments (and the previous comment) it looks like diaries and reflection are the way to go.

  7. sava Says:

    I was assigned a new media fast once, but it wasn’t an all new media fast – it was just google. that somehow made it less restrictive, and also made us find creative workarounds. it was very hard for me because my life is in google – gmail, gcal, gchat… even youtube! so, maybe identifying something that people use fairly regularly and have them abstain from that would be something to consider.

    oh, and we also had something of a support group. everytime we slipped up, we reported it on our class blog and the rest of the class would comment and say “me too!”, etc. made for good community building =)

  8. multicast » Blog Archive » Avoiding New Media: Impossible? « MediaBlawg = За Нови медии Says:

    […] multicast » Blog Archive » Avoiding New Media: Impossible?. […]

  9. Documentary Site Says:

    Hi, Christian. No, I did not lie when I did the assignment as a graduate student. I think at the time my professor knew I was working in the industry, as were several other students in the class. I was upfront about it in the paper — that was easier than trying to make something up. I don’t remember the grade, but I did pass the class and got the degree so…

    The value for that assignment for me was seeing how to modify and use it in my own classes. I have 120 students doing this assignment this semester, and it is always interesting to see the results.

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