On most afternoons, as I saunter back to Forbes College after class, my phone is a constant temptation. I have not checked it during my lectures and precepts, and I anticipate unread emails and waiting text messages.
Walking while using my phone invariably leaves me disoriented, as I cannot devote my full attention to either task. Once I reach my destination, I often cannot even recall the physical steps I took to get there. Several days ago, I looked up from my phone to find myself on a collision course with a passing cyclist. With a hasty “sorry,” I stumbled out of her way, embarrassed to have slipped into such inattention.
Recent evidence suggests that overusing cell phones and other technology damages our mental health. In a recent podcast, “,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher at University of Southern California, explains, “When you’re listening to your cell phone ding … you’re attending to the outside world in a way that shuts down and decouples an internal network.” Immordino-Yang’s “internal network” refers to imaginative and creative thinking. Her research indicates that phones interrupt our imaginations. To protect our creative capacities, she recommends we regularly allot time during which we have only our minds for companionship.
With her words in mind, I posit that we live on a campus that remembers. Innumerable plaques, benches, walkways, and gardens memorialize alumni gifts that span more than two centuries. Gothic halls and soaring spires named in honor of luminaries such as Meg Whitman ‘77, and Hobey Baker, Class of 1914, and Peter Lewis ‘55, dwarf us.
We ought to at least notice, if not appreciate, this rich heritage. But doing so requires attending to our campus. Walking to our classes should include looking and listening, not dividing our attention between an electronic interface and reality. Lest I prove myself a hypocrite, I now resolve to walk without distraction.
Last week, I listened to distinguished British poet Alice Oswald deliver the inaugural Robert Fagles Lecture for Classics in the Contemporary Arts here at Princeton. Oswald recited the final portion of “Memorial,” her remarkable rendition of Homer’s Iliad. Memory is central to all of Oswald’s work because she memorizes every word she writes, striking any piece of writing that she cannot commit to memory.
Oswald’s speech reminded me of an endeavor I undertook over the summer. I memorized Ulysses, a 70-line, blank verse poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, written from the perspective of Ulysses, also known as Odysseus, in old age. The experience humbled me. Since arriving at Princeton, I had not given the poem any thought — that is, until I heard Oswald speak.
Now, whenever I am alone and feel tempted by my phone, I recite the poem. In less than three recitations, I can walk from the E-Quad to Forbes. Tennyson’s words inspire me to pause and ponder the elegant inscriptions that grace our archways and doorways. I sit in the alcove between East Pyne and Chancellor Green that is dedicated to the Princeton alumni who perished on 9/11. I step into the Chapel for quiet moments of reverence. I jog to the Princeton Cemetery, where figures who helped to shape our nation rest.
When walking, we can be “productive” by calling our parents or listening to podcasts. In my experience, however, talking into a phone or wearing ear buds still prevents fully engaging with our surroundings. Immordino-Yang proposes that we embrace boredom, which requires freeing our minds of all technological stimuli. To do so, I give myself one task: reciting poetry. As I walk, my mind wanders. By the time I reach my destination, my mind has often taken a new direction of thought, inspired by a phrase in the poem or by a nook I noticed along the way.
Therefore, I advise every reader to commit to memory a poem, a piece of literature, or a fragment of a larger work. It could be something first read in class, found in an anthology, or discovered while reading for pleasure. For one, I intend to learn more poems by heart. Memorizing an admired work honors the legacy of its author. Doing so also liberates our senses from technology, opens our eyes to hidden groves and paths, and helps us to understand our place at this University.
Jon Ort is a first-year from Highlands Ranch, Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.