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SLU students go 'unplugged'

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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CANTON — Just a few years ago, the assignment Jennifer B. MacGregor recently gave her first-year psychology class wouldn't have existed. Looked at one way, it seems simple: Talk to people face-to-face, read, write and get outside.


But for the 16 St. Lawrence University students in the visiting assistant professor's "Identity in the Internet Age" seminar course, the task is more challenging than that.


Ms. MacGregor has asked every one of the freshman students to "unplug" — from their e-mail, from Facebook, from MySpace, from Twitter, from blogging, from online games, from instant messaging, from their iPods, and, if they could stand it, from their cell phones — for two whole weeks.


"One girl, I could see the wheels turning in her head, thinking, 'Can I still drop this class?'" the professor said, just a few days after she gave the assignment. "Right now, they're freaking out. But the idea is not to make this a punishment, I really want them to embrace it."


The students will be graded based on two factors: how long they can make it without their cell phone and their online environment, and how well they record their thoughts and feelings about the process in their journals.


For her part, Ms. MacGregor also decided to "unplug" for her class.


"I didn't know how much time I spent on e-mail. Now, I'm pacing the hall looking for someone to talk to," she said.


There are a couple of caveats to the experiment, showing just how intertwined these technologies are in the daily life of the campus.


Ms. MacGregor and her students are allowed to check their e-mail once a day, at 10 p.m., but they can only answer vital messages and they have to sign off as soon as possible. The students who gave up their cell phones — they actually turned them in to the professor who keeps them in individual plastic baggies — can use landlines to communicate.


And everyone is still allowed to use the Internet for research, because for many classes, they have to.


Part of the challenge is resisting the urge to cheat, but if the students do, they are expected to write about why in their journals.


Ms. MacGregor said she didn't want to make the rules of her assignment too rigid for those who can't take it, because she was worried about them being able to take care of business — one student was waiting to find out about a job, and another was dealing with an insurance claim, for instance — as well as for their mental health.


"On one of the first days, the counseling center called my office, and my first thought was, 'Oh no, one of my students went unplugged and now they're suicidal,'" she said, laughing. "That wasn't it, though."


Students had a couple of days to prepare for the assignment, so they got the message out to parents, professors and friends. They also set up a dry-erase board in the Sullivan Student Center for their peers to leave messages, such as where and when to meet for a meal.


Most SLU students don't have landlines in their dorm rooms, so if they need to make a call, they have to ask a professor to use the phone in his or her office, Ms. MacGregor said.


Chelsea M. Cavellier of Dexter said her mother got her a watch and an alarm clock when she told her she was going to give up her cell phone. She and her roommate also went out and purchased a landline phone and a calling card.


"I had my homework done before the weekend, and that never happens," Ms. Cavellier said.


Joseph M. Cambareri of Syracuse said he has a friend who has never actually spoken to his girlfriend on the phone — he only text-messages her. For his part, Mr. Cambareri's girlfriend recently left an "I love Joe" note for all to see, scribbled on the class's board in the student center.


"I had to schedule everything, because I'm in a choir that usually texts where rehearsal is going to be," he said. "I'm more focused. I have more free time now."


The students had developed a hypothesis, halfway through the experiment, however: The longer a person goes without access to a cell phone, the more his or her anxiety increases.


Kayla J. Twardzik of Tribes Hill was wary of giving up Facebook — and joked that on her first day "back," she'd probably spend six hours on the social networking Web site.


"I feel out of the loop. I like stalking people. I keep thinking of things that would make a good status update, and then I go, 'Oh, yeah,'" she said.


One student said he spent most of class staring longingly at his cell phone on Ms. MacGregor's desk. Another shocked everyone by revealing that he didn't have a cell phone and that he hadn't even told his family he would be away from e-mail.


But most said they just found they had more time to do homework — and said there's still plenty to do on campus.


"The people that care about me still know I exist," said Jonathan J. Stopyra of Warwick, R.I. "Facebook isn't important."


Plus, since they can still watch television, they felt as if they still have access to entertainment.


"I'm doing more running around, physically bringing things to people, and walking around campus to find someone," Mr. Cambareri said.


Ms. MacGregor said she wanted to show students how much their identity and the way they interact with the world is tied up in technology.


"Their generation are digital natives; they grew up with this stuff. My generation had to struggle to learn it," she said. "I liken this experience to going to another country. Technology has overtaken our culture incredibly quickly and it's only going to get faster."


Shortly after Ms. MacGregor announced her experiment — and outlined how best to reach her, besides e-mail and cell phone — she received a postcard in the mail from another professor.


"It said, 'You can do it. This is great. I wish we could all do this and just simplify for a couple of weeks,'" Ms. MacGregor said.

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