Digital Detox

First-year seminar professor encourages students to cast aside their phones and explore the city

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Wed, 08/30/2017 - 15:18

Imagine giving up your phone and all electronic media: No Facebook, no iTunes, no Netflix, no Google. For students in Adjunct Professor John Higgins’ first-year seminar “Mashup! Media and Pop Culture in San Francisco,” it’s no thought exercise — it’s a class assignment that takes place over 24 hours.

Some students gasp with dismay at the idea of a “digital detox,” said Higgins. But for Chia Tien Fan ’20, who took the class last semester, the assignment felt like a breath of fresh air.

“At that time, social media affected me a lot,” she said. “I was spending too much time on it.”

What do our devices satisfy?

The detox is meant to get students thinking about the media they consume, and why they consume it.

“What sort of needs in us do these devices satisfy? What are they gratifying?” Higgins asks students. 

During the detox students take notes (like recording how many times they reached in their pocket for their phone during the day) and write a reflection that references social theories or articles about how, for example, heavy use of electronic media can negatively affect children’s behavior, health, and social performance. 

“I felt that my mind became more clear after the 24 hours,” said Fan. But she hasn’t been able to repeat the exercise since then: “We need those devices.”

City as classroom

First-year seminars are classes that fill core requirements (“Mashup!” meets the social science requirement) and are designed to ease new students into life at USF in fun and unique ways, and often include field trips around the city. 

“Golden Gate Park,” for example, is a rhetoric and composition core class that explores the history of San Francisco’s most famous park. “Food and Farming in San Francisco,” a social science core class, treats students to field work at USF’s Community Garden and trips to places like the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

In Higgins’ class, students check out some of San Francisco’s best art at the Legion of Honor and in the alleyways of the Mission District, then they discuss the difference between “elite” culture (the fine art in the Legion of Honor) and “pop” culture (the gritty murals in the Mission).

“Who decides what’s art?” Higgins asks. It’s a question that is ever-relevant: Pundits debated for weeks whether Bob Dylan’s music was worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature it won this year, for example.

Fan, who is from Taiwan, said she enjoyed learning about San Francisco culture and history in readings and on excursions.

There are more than two dozen first-year seminars to choose from, and Higgins encourages students to sign up. 

“You get to think, engage with the community, and get off campus and see what’s around you,” he says.

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