01/09/2015 03:24 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

The Unplugged Assignment: College Freshmen Take the Challenge

"It was quiet and it was beautiful. I walked around for an hour observing each and every sound I heard, dissecting everything I saw in my head. It was amazing. My unplugged experience was boring, most would say, but I feel it was spiritually enlightening and I enjoyed it, for the most part." - Sayeed

This quote comes from an assignment I give to my Music 1 class at Queens College-CUNY. This fall semester, I had the delight of teaching a class of all first-semester freshmen, as part of the college's FYI (Freshman Year Initiative) program. Although the majority of the course requires active listening and students use online resources for much of their course work, the "unplugged" journal assignment invites students to avoid screens for 24 hours and write about their experience, through the lenses of musical perception, sound awareness and self-reflection.

Prior to this assignment, students have read excerpts of composer John Cage's "Lecture on Nothing", Cat Greenleaf's article and watched videos on the subject "I Forgot my Phone" and "Look Up".

Some students in the class observe the Sabbath and are used to taking a day away from work (and screens) so it was particularly interesting to read Arman's experience as he was more aware of the emotional component of his interactions. "I stood there dumbfounded, because I had realized that I was indeed one of those people who used their phone as a device to keep to myself and wear it as a sign that said, "do not disturb". That moment I realized that it was not just about an assignment any more; it was about something completely different. I needed to open myself up to more people, so that is what I did that entire day. Throughout the day, I spoke to many people, heard stories, and really connected with members of my temple that I usually just walked past every week- Arman

I first started this assignment when I realized that many students, unfamiliar with listening to extended instrumental works or varied vocal styles, were only responding to the music from a place of "entertainment." They were expecting the music (in some cases, very subtle listening, such as Arvo Pärt's Symhony No. 4 to slice through the constant digital noise that they live with. When a piece failed to distract them from the distractions (Facebook, ipads, text messages) that they constantly engage in, they judged the piece a failure. This assignment does create awareness for improved music listening, and a greater appreciation for silence, but more importantly, students reacquaint themselves with family, and with their own inner thoughts. "Making all noise halt for a moment is nearly impossible, but we might as well take control of the sounds in our home. Taking a break from the noise we actively contribute to may enhance our relationships with loved ones. We may even learn to listen to them, wholly." - Maria

"The silence actually made me listen to my thoughts more and play close attention to them. Silence is key in life. Sometimes we need it to realize the beauty of our quiet thoughts." - Alessandra

Since this was a class comprised entirely of first-semester freshmen, it is a prime time to have discussions about how to be successful in college, but also how to become the person you want to be in life.
"As I went to sleep that night, I noticed that my mind wasn't racing, and I felt very tranquil. I believe taking a hiatus from distracting electronics and foreground sounds was beneficial to my well-being, and I would like to have days like this more often!" Carly

For me, "being bored" is actually a gift; it's a tabula rasa waiting for inspiration. It seems that to younger generations, being bored is unacceptable and for many students, it is something they don't know how to handle. I was thrilled to see some students embrace the quietude of their own thoughts.
"I think if we allow ourselves to be bored sometimes and to just sit in silence, we will become more comfortable with ourselves and our surroundings." - Maria

While at a spa/massage place, "I noticed other people watching movies on their ipads, texting their friends, emailing colleagues etc. I just sat there, but I was not bored like I thought I would be. I felt an inner relaxation. I believe that this inner relaxation is my inner music. My inner music is peace." - Sharon

Interestingly, many students, although only 18, reflected on their childhood as being very different from the life they see now. "As the day came to an end, I thought about my life. When I was a kid I used to play hide and seek with my friends or make fires out of dead leaves. I wasn't on my laptop watching videos all day. Detaching myself from technology brought back to me the memories of when I was younger and life was so much more beautiful. I actually interacted with nature and people and not with a flat screen. It is not the technology but the user." - Carlos

I don't have a hidden agenda; I merely want students to have the opportunity to make conscious choices about how they use technology. I do hope that the students walk away from this assignment with a greater sense of their own potential; the untapped creativity, vitality and beauty and passion that is so easily obscured by the constant distractions in life.
"This unplugged journal left even more time for day-dreaming. It made more room for my mind to wander and time alone for myself where I was not distracted by technology." - Jackie Lam

"I walked into Sight Singing class that morning and for the first time I noticed how many people wouldn't even look up from their phone to smile or even say hello. The "hellos" that I received from people were distant, automatic. When I left class and was walking in the hallway, I made eye contact with people and said hello, with a little more meaning this time." - Megha

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that we are the ones choosing what we allow in our lives. We are creators, and we can choose to create good, to create beauty, to create art and music, and to create joy and to share kindness. Yes, we can do these things while using a smartphone, but we can also put down the screens and look someone in the eye, with love.

"The whole experience was different because I believe it allowed me to interact with people face-to-face after such a long time. I even had a heartwarming and meaningful conversation with my mom. She's always been there for me and this project has made me realize that even though I am busy, I need to give the most significant person in my life my time." Sarah

"All we need to do is put down the phone and actually meet new people. And talk to one another face-to-face. Because, in all honesty, when I sit there in the cafeteria at lunchtime on my phone, I'm in a room with two or three hundred other people, but I feel alone. It's a terrible feeling, but it's one that has become all too common in today's society. And the saddest part is that people have become so attached to technology, that they no longer feel that loneliness that I do." - Mark

So - from the Music 1 class at Queens College - we challenge you to take 24 hours away from screens. Wouldn't it be nice to get to the end of a day and feel like this student? "At this point [after a long day] I would usually catch up on all the social media and respond to text messages, but instead I was able to think about my day. Play it back through my mind able to evaluate how I treated the people that I love. I ended up going to sleep with a smile on my face feeling truly happy about my day. - Richie