Living silently, celibate, and technology-free

Living Deliberately

For 29 days last spring, students in Justin McDaniel’s religious studies course observed a code of silence, eschewed all electronic communications, and spent no more than $50 per week. They practiced celibacy, ate only raw vegetables or meat cooked without oil, and performed a daily act of kindness, preferably for a stranger.

“I wanted to do a course that … really tried to replicate as much as possible the monastic rules taken from several different traditions, primarily Buddhist and Catholic, in a modern American college setting,” says McDaniel, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies. “To do that, the students had to be all in.”

Students in the class, “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life,” also had to keep journals, writing down what they were doing every 15 minutes, taking a break only when they were sleeping. Some journals were interpretive, and others were descriptive, McDaniel says, but all of the students took the assignment seriously.

McDaniel and several of his students will talk about the course and answer questions about their experiences at the Penn Lightbulb Café lecture on Tuesday, April 16, at 6 p.m. at World Cafe Live Upstairs, 3025 Walnut St. The event is free and open to the public.

McDaniel says he was surprised by the number of students who tried to register for the course, but ultimately limited the number to 15, with preference given to religious studies majors and Benjamin Franklin Scholars.

“I got so much feedback from students wanting to do things like this. I was really pleasantly surprised,” he says. “The students were extremely dedicated; 100 percent were really committed to the course.”

Justin McDaniel

Department of Religious Studies

Justin McDaniel, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

The commitment required students to turn away from computers, iPods, and Blackboard during the middle of a busy semester. Students could speak only to an assigned partner in class, and even then only sparingly. They were allowed no electronic devices and had to wake up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and be in bed at 10 p.m. In class, men had to wear white T-shirts and the women had to wear black T-shirts, and everyone was required to go without makeup, jewelry, and hats.

McDaniel says he was impressed by the students’ dedication to the practice, especially since the current generation is so wired and connected. But, he says, this wasn’t an exercise to test morality.

“This was [about] hyper-awareness of your speech, your mind, and your body at all moments, understanding your attachments, understanding your addictions,” he says. “Every single student in the class felt healthier [and said] they had a lot more time on their hands.”

For more information about the April 16 lecture, visit the Lightbulb Café website.

To RSVP, contact Gina Bryan at 215-898-8721 or email bryangm@pobox.upenn.edu. Menu items will be available for purchase.

Originally published on April 11, 2013