|Craig McCarthy '09, a Dean's List math major, pounds out a paper during the last week of classes.
LAND OF LITTLE SLEEP
Call him a sleep shifter. Joe Ziarko ’07, he of the perky grin, shiny reddish hair and matching scruff of a beard, is a happy traveler at Dickinson, the place he calls “the land of little sleep.” He catches ZZZZs when he can during the daytime, then kicks around campus in the wee hours—seeing who’s instant messaging (IM’ing) and whose “away” message is posted.
For those who attended college back in the days when Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show sign-off signaled the time to flop into bed, the extent to which the campus now buzzes 24/7 may seem alarming.
As Davis Tracy, director of counseling, says, “There always have been all-nighter-type people, and there still are. I’m most concerned about sleep deprivation we see in people who stay up till 4 a.m., whose sleep cycle is flip-flopped so that they become nocturnal. There are some students who arrange it so they only have classes in the afternoon to accommodate being 4 a.m.-to-noon sleepers.”
“Students always have had the tendency to stay up late but definitely not to this extent,” says Mary Arthur, director of the health center. “It’s absolutely worse now with technology and the computer—IM’ing new friends and going on Facebook [a social-networking Web site used mainly by college students] and now playing games with people online ’round
“All we can do is educate them that sleep is so critical to their physical and mental well-being,” Arthur adds. “A college student who has only four hours’ sleep does not have the same memory recall and is not as alert and responsive [as someone who’s slept for eight].”
She gets out the message with a health-center waiting-room brochure, “A Good Night’s Sleep: Tips and Support” that notes: “... we have turned into a 24/7 society. We are always ‘on’ and connected to others, which can prevent us from taking regular rest breaks. Try disconnecting from it all …”
Students who seek her help may wait until they have been awake for more than 100 hours and are presenting other symptoms, such as flu or a cold that took hold because their sleep-deprived immune systems were suppressed.
First-year and sophomore students in the Steps to Academic Success program also hear from Arthur about the importance of adequate sleep. Steps is a skills-development program for students on academic probation.
Becky Hammell, the associate director of advising and first-year dean who helps administer the Steps program, sees overuse of technology as a sleep disruptor, especially for males. They may be playing online games or “get lost doing research on the Web and later admit that they were surfing for three to four hours [rather than working on their papers],” she says. “The Web is an incredible tool, but it’s very seductive.”
“For a few students, gaming is their life,” says Tracy. “We don’t have a lot who have that difficulty, but I see some every year, the majority of whom are male.”
Arthur concurs that all-night gaming, either on PlayStation or with online groups, is a mostly male activity. For females, the lure of the Internet seems to be more about social networking. “Girls may be on Facebook or IM’ing friends. They’re staying up for different attractions.”
For sleep shifters like Ziarko, a history and theatre major who arranges his slumber around the demands of prepping for a performance or class-assignment deadlines, naps are the saving grace.
Arthur believes in the value of napping. “The 20- to 30-minute power nap is good, but it can’t make up for [long-term sleep deprivation],” she says.
Ziarko’s fellow thespian, math major Craig McCarthy ’09, also snatches naps to keep himself powered through the long days and nights. According to McCarthy, he’s not watching TV or wired to entertainment sites but keeps vampire hours due to extracurricular activities that shift his bedtime back to 2 or 3 most mornings.
“I’ll have class from 6:30-9 p.m., play rehearsal until 11:30,” McCarthy says. “I’m in two plays right now. So that’s five rehearsals a week.” When he heads back to his room at the Arts Haus, there’ll be someone available to talk at “all times day or night. At Dickinson, we do a lot of rearranging of schedules” depending upon a given week’s demands.
McCarthy and Ziarko marvel at another theatre buddy, Ellen Joffred ’07, whom they say keeps regular and reasonable hours. “It’s so foreign,” says Ziarko of Joffred’s conventional sleep habits. “When there’s a problem with a rehearsal, you want to keep going. Someone else wants to get to bed. I think, ‘What? You can’t work on this at midnight?’ ”
Even the well-regulated Joffred was finding it hard to fit all her activities into 24 hours during her first two years at Dickinson. “My sophomore year I was in Merrily We Roll Along and the D-Tones, Dickinson’s first coed a cappella group, as well as two plays. You want to do everything because that’s what you did in high school. But with Dickinson’s academic load, that’s impossible.”
Going abroad to Toulouse, France, as a junior was a time to reflect on her hypercharged schedule. “I didn’t do plays, didn’t take voice lessons, and I came back more relaxed and less tense” with a vow to more narrowly focus her campus commitments.
Ziarko, on the brink of graduation with two resumés in the works—one for his theatre major, one for his history major—has no fear that his four-year swim in a nocturnal sea will set him back in the work world. He knows he can shift back to a workaday schedule.
Last summer he arose at 4:45 a.m. for his landscaping job and went to bed at 10 p.m. “It was a relief to have a regimented life,” he says. But it also made him feel socially isolated. “People aren’t online until after 11. I felt cut off.”
Arthur cites Duke University psychiatry professor Aaron White, whose presentation on the adolescent brain she recently attended. “White said the adolescent brain is wired to take risks, to not have the same sleep patterns as adults and to need more rest. He feels that, as institutions, we should try to understand the adolescent brain and shift class times to accommodate this. But then,” she says, “if classes start at 2 and end at 10, what about the professors who have families? These are two groups of people who have different lifestyles.”
Faculty members reading this article can rest assured that shifting the class schedule to meet the needs of the adolescent brain is not on the table. To that proposal Provost and Dean of the College Neil Weissman issues a flat no. Shifting the class start time two years ago to 8:30 a.m. from 8 a.m., was as far as it goes. He does acknowledge, though, that students’ and professors’ out-of-synch schedules are a concern.
“Students may e-mail a professor late at night or right before class and don’t know why the professor hasn’t answered,” Weissman says. “There’s a generation gap in that regard. Most faculty are not constantly on e-mail, but student expectation is that professors are checking all the time.”
Tracy says students often e-mail him with questions at 3 a.m., but he doesn’t log onto his account until three hours later. “I’ve been driven to be more responsive earlier in the day,” he says. “It relieves some of my own pressure [of trying to answer the pileup of e-mails during his regular work hours].”
Lynn Helding, associate professor of music, funnels communications through the online Blackboard Course Management System rather than individual
e-mails to reduce the number of e-mails she receives and the expectation that she will respond at any hour. She makes it clear at a course onset that she will use her Blackboard site to post general course information and that students are responsible for checking.
For the fall musical Urinetown, Helding posted remarks on Blackboard about dancing, acting, blocking, singing and so forth, after each rehearsal. This enabled her to go home to her family rather than stay long into the night to deliver her critique to the cast.
“I don’t stay up all night like they do,” she says. “At night I’d write up specific notes and post them by 6 or 7 the next morning, knowing full well they wouldn’t see them until later in the day.”
Another reason she’s migrated to Blackboard is “that information posted there is not too familiar,” she says. “E-mailing opens up this way of talking that is way too familiar.”
And sometimes, downright rude. Helding explains that, a few years ago, a “very talented student, who was very responsible … wrote the most disrespectful
e-mail after receiving a grade she was not happy with after a vocal performance.
“It was very angry, impolite … and very unwise,” adds Helding. “I wrote back, ‘Dear student, I do not reply by e-mail about grades. Please come see me.’”
When the student arrived, “I printed out the e-mail and gave it to her, saying, ‘Why don’t you read this and remind me what the issues are?’ The student read it, with tears rolling down her face, and said, ‘I can’t believe how offensive this is.’ It was a powerful learning moment for her,” Helding says. “I was not out to be wicked but to prove that this is a powerful medium. Students need to be careful with this. They may not talk to us the way they talk to their friends.”
Tim Poirier, associate dean of students, applauds faculty members like Helding who orchestrate what he calls “teachable moments. I encourage faculty to think of it as such and not as a personal affront. We need to take the high road and help students understand and reflect on their actions.”
Nine years ago, when he became dean, Weissman made it clear to the faculty that e-mails were welcome but not mass mailings of humor and satire. “They respected that,” he says, “and don’t include me on the frivolous. But I am happy for their e-mails. The college has been growing in terms of raw numbers. We have more than 200 full-time-equivalent faculty, and I can’t meet with all of them. E-mail is good for individual communication, but decision-making still is done in subcommittees and faculty meetings. E-mail is no substitute for the face to face.”
Students spend plenty of time communicating with professors through technology, whether e-mail or Blackboard, “but faculty are just as available for face-to-face interaction as ever. And students expect that,” Weissman says. “A liberal-arts college is not built to use technology as a shortcut.”
New faculty, who are just a half-step away from the most wired generation in history “want to be here for the personalized, human interaction that is a part of our mission,” Weissman adds. “Yet they’re very technologically savvy and creative in their approach to their work.”
The extra time required to integrate technology while maintaining the traditional personal interaction between professors and students is a factor driving the faculty course reduction from six to five classes per year, beginning this fall, says Weissman.
Advising is an important part of the faculty workload, and Shirley King, director of advising, sees technology as a tool to maintain Dickinson’s traditional face-to-face interaction. Students must see their advisers to get a six-digit alternate pin to register for classes.
“We’re trying to encourage them to build a long-term relationship,” says King. “Professors are attracted to Dickinson because they want those personal relationships. Fit for faculty is as important to them as it is for students.”
Ensuring that advising occurs one-on-one rather than via e-mail or phone is essential, reinforces Hammell, the first-year dean.
“Fifty percent of what goes on in an interaction is words,” she remarks. “What counts is facial expression and tone of voice. Students are so accustomed to talking through a veil. Technology has caused an erosion of their ability to develop one-on-one relationships.”
EROSION OF COMMUNITY?
The traditional cozy college community of yore—when students lived in a four-year bubble, relating mainly with peers and rarely outside campus boundaries—may be a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean the sense of community is eroding, says Tracy from his office in the counseling center. “They’re expanding ‘community’ to the whole world.”
But, says Poirier, “they must be mindful that the virtual world doesn’t become a replacement for the real. Students here always will be living in close quarters and interacting personally. I worry about the student who hasn’t had many personal interactions before arriving here. There is a greater degree of social awkwardness for 18-year-olds now than there was 10 years ago.”
Students may arrive at college accustomed since junior high to relating through technology rather than face to face,” he adds. The best way to help them overcome social awkwardness is to work through campus student leaders, he says. “The Greeks, athletes, RAs, Senate members can impress on them the need for interaction. It’s not something to just stick in first-year orientation. It’s something that’s ingrained in their culture.” And, therefore, it is best to work through their peers to change it.
Poirier and Tracy are quite direct, though, about the dangers of being too candid online, in words or pictures.
“We don’t do enough educating about the potential pitfalls,” says Poirier. “I constantly advise students that once it’s online, it’s there. Just because you take a picture off doesn’t mean it isn’t cached. I liken MySpace to a billboard in front of their parents’ house. It’s there for everyone to see, and everyone who drives by is taking a picture of it. When students see it in that context they pause and are more thoughtful.”
Tracy cautions students, “if a picture is on MySpace of you with friends who are intoxicated or of you in various states of undress, this can be made accessible broadly. Would you consider having a tattoo on your forehead, because [postings] have the same potential for permanence.”
Brenda Landis, a multimedia developer who assists faculty members and students in the classroom, also warns students about being too open online. “Don’t say anything you don’t want to come back to haunt you.” She also is concerned about people relating too frequently online and not in person.
“Life is so fast-paced,” she says. “One of the shortfalls amongst all of the benefits of technology is that people don’t take the time to just sit down and have conversations.”
But to Ziarko, technology isn’t decreasing personal interactions, it’s fostering them. “It strengthens the bond in our community. If I’m pulling an all-nighter, I’ll call around to the regulars to see if someone can take a break. I can leave a message on IM or send a text without being intrusive on the sleep [of a slumbering roommate].”
That break might entail a run to McDonald’s, since the dining hall is long closed.
“When the menu switches from French fries to hash browns, that’s when I know I’ve been up too long,” Ziarko says with a smile. If he’s still up between 5 and 6 a.m., he may flip open his cell phone and call home before his mom heads to her job as a teacher.
“The best time to have a talk with her is when I pull an all-nighter. Our most lucid and lengthy conversations occur then.”
HOOKED INTO MOM AND DAD
Closeness to parents, which has been enhanced by the rise of the cell phone, is another trademark of this generation of college students.
“College isn’t so much the launching pad from the family of origin as it was 20 to 30 years ago,” says Tracy. “It used to be that the parents’ job was to get a student on shore and watch until they paddled off and ask them to send a card from the next island. Technology has facilitated their ability to stay involved. It’s a factor in the more-prolonged trip to independence from the family of origin.”
King says parental overinvolvement “is one of the biggest issues in advising. In the past, the faculty adviser was the authority on the curriculum. Now if I ask who a student’s best friend is, they say it is the parent. They think of parents as being experts on advising as well and will ask them for advice before their faculty adviser. I heard of one student who was in the midst of an advising session and whipped out a cell phone. She had the expert in front of her and still called mom. Some parents know how to be back there at home to support their kids, and others don’t.”
The increased closeness of parents and children is undeniable, says Poirier. “Many students talk to their parents three or four times a day.”
Such closeness is not all bad from his perspective as the dean responsible for student discipline. “They are more inclined to trust adults and are more open with adults, not like students from my generation,” Poirier says. “I’m glad I’m doing this job now rather than 20 years ago.
“I think the downside of parental involvement can be overly sensationalized,” Poirier adds. “There are some pitfalls, but it wouldn’t have grown in the last three or four years if it didn’t have some benefits. We need to acknowledge those benefits, or students won’t take us as seriously. After all, there are worse things in the world than having parents who care about you. It makes my job so much richer. Parents can be my greatest ally. The reality is to show students that parents are one expert in life, but there are others.”
While cell phones and e-mail have kept the umbilical cord more intact than ever for many students and families, technology also has altered the mating game.
The explosion of online social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook “have completely revamped the relationship development, so much so that more communication occurs between college students now before they’ve spoken to each other in person,” says Tracy. “They rely more on technology to get a relationship started. The upside is you can learn a lot more about each other; the downside is, how much truth is there in the reporting?”
Initiating a relationship online “truly can be a benefit,” says Poirier. “It’s a little bit safer than if you go to a party or a bar. It can be used as a screening tool. My advice to students is you need to look a lot more deeply. People can easily misrepresent themselves online.
“Some students use it for that purpose, to create the persona they want to be,” Poirier continues. “A cheerleader type in real life could be a Goth online. It’s not better or worse than the old way [of meeting a potential date]. It’s just different.”
ACCENTUATING THE POSITIVE
Like Poirier, Todd Bryant, language program administrator, is a member of Generation X, the group that followed the Baby Boomers and preceded today’s college students, known as the Millennials.
Bryant notes, “The positive aspect is this generation, more than mine, is all about creating stuff on the Web rather than using it for just reading or receiving information. They create skits, write stories, create games, communicate with people around the world. They’re open to communicating with people they have never met before.”
Poirier sees this as a good thing. “Among college administrators, there’s sometimes a hysteria about students and their virtual selves. But it can be a positive experience. A student may say, ‘I wouldn’t have met Sally from Gettysburg if I hadn’t joined the End the Iraq War Facebook group.’
“In the Dickinson Dispositions [traits that define a Dickinson education], we talk about this being a place where students can find their distinct voice—publishing themselves whenever they want, thinking and writing about the issues that matter to them,” Poirier continues to say.
He advises members of earlier generations to reserve judgment: “Be informed, and take a measured view. If there weren’t benefits to technology, it wouldn’t have proliferated so much. If we want students to heed our warnings about the downside of technology, we need to acknowledge the benefits.”