Saddle Up: Why I Keep Going Back to School

While reading a recent article by Bill McKibben, I had an epiphany. (If you’ve read any of McKibben’s thought-provoking books, you know that this is not an unusual reaction to his work. Henceforth, I am calling all such revelations McKibbeniphanies.)

In any case, this particular piece, entitled “Pause! We Can Go Back!,” was a review of a book by David Sax called The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, a book I’m looking forward to reading. There are many insights throughout the brief review, and I have a feeling I’m going to be writing several blog posts in response to Sax’s and McKibben’s thoughts about life in the digital age, but for now I want to focus on just one—the one that felt the most personal to me.

Sax’s book, and hence McKibben’s review, explores the state we find ourselves in circa 2017: McKibben writes, “Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen.”

Like Sax and McKibben, I protest (too loudly) that I am no Luddite. I spend much of my day in front of a computer screen, either creating content or ingesting it. I have a Smartphone; I do my banking online; I text…when necessary. I’m keenly aware of the benefits the digital world has brought to my professional life. In fact, it’s hard to imagine being a writer without the breathtaking convenience of the Internet.

But I also mourn the loss of…oh, so many things. True solitude. The ability to go some place and actually be there. Certain mysteries that should remain mysteries but never do—at least not for more than the twenty seconds it takes to whip out a Smartphone and query Google.

Sax, by way of McKibben, lists these analog-to-digital losses. We have lost “places where we can touch actual physical objects….” We have lost “finishability”—a concept I adore—which Sax explains as “a defined beginning, middle, and end” and which McKibben contrasts thus: “It doesn’t spool on forever in the manner of the Web.”

And then there’s loneliness. “This was supposed to be digital’s real selling point—the ability to reach out and touch any other human being, to never be alone,” writes McKibben. But as we all know, we rarely find a feeling of true intimacy through digital devices. Instead, as Sax writes: Even if you’re playing games “with the same group of friends around the world each day, talking smack over your headsets, and typing in snippets of conversations, you were ultimately alone in a room with a screen, and the loneliness washed over you like a wave when the game ended.”

Through much of the article, I nodded my head, ruefully acknowledging all that we’ve lost without even realizing our losses. But it was near the end of the article, when McKibben brought up the issue of education, that I had my “aha” moment.

A bit of background first.

It is school-visit season as I write this post. As predictable as the phases of the moon, as faithful as the cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano, as regular as sea turtles climbing ashore to lay their eggs, the spring school-visit season is upon us, that time when schools across the country invite authors to meet their students and talk about reading, writing, and what it’s like to be an author.

I visit approximately fifty schools each year. Just last week, I was in New York and Pennsylvania, visiting nine schools over five days and meeting 4,169 (give or take a few) students. I’ve traveled as far as Hawaii (from Massachusetts) to do school visits, and I’ve visited schools in more than half the states in the country. Over the years, I estimate that I’ve visited more than two hundred thousand students.

But I don’t do Skype visits. I don’t like them. In the past, I did them, because I wanted to be accommodating to schools that couldn’t host an in-person visit, but I always felt miserable—before, during, and after—exactly the opposite of how I feel when I do an in-person visit. When I visit a school, I feel engaged, vital, connected. The kids make me laugh. They make me think. They challenge me. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in my presentations. Teachers often remark how interactive my visits are. And I always leave the school feeling deeply satisfied.

But visiting through “the veil of the computer,” via Skype or some other technology, leaves me grumpy. Unsatisfied. Hungry. At the end of the session, I press the little icon that signifies “hang up,” and I invariably think, What was the point of that?

I’ve always blamed this feeling on the technology and myself. I say the technology’s “glitchy,” which it is. I say it’s hard to keep the kids’ attention, which it is. I say I can’t get a sense of the kids, I can’t get to know them, I can’t get them to know me—all of which is true.

I told myself there must be something wrong with my setup (laptop, internet connection, microphone). There must be something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I get that same wonderful feeling of connection with the kids that always happens when I visit a school in person? And did it matter? Was it selfish of me to want that deeply satisfying feeling of having reached out and made a difference in a child’s life? After all, the teachers always say, “The kids love visiting authors via Skype!” But from where I sit, they don't look like they love it. They don't even look like they're paying attention. They fidget. Their eyes wander. They engage in side conversations. None of this happens when I meet with kids in person. I’m accustomed to holding an auditorium of five hundred students in rapt silence. Or eliciting an explosion of laughter. Or having hands wave wildly in the air, each student eager to answer the question I’ve posed. Was it just me who was failing to connect in our digital age?

When I finally confessed all of this to Rachel Vail, she told me I didn't have to do them. She officially gave me permission to say no. And so I stopped.

But I felt inadequate. Selfish. Guilty.

So there I am, reading Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s book. And I read this: “The notion of imagination and human connection as analog virtues comes across most powerfully in Sax’s discussion of education.” I sit up in my chair. Ah, this pertains. “Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of ‘transforming’ our education systems with all manners of gadgetry.” Yes, yes! I think. That’s what I keep hearing. Is it just me who’s not keeping up?

McKibben goes on to describe the excitement around MOOCs (massive open online courses), but also the truth that “many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.” I think to myself, that’s just what I see through the computer screen when I Skype with elementary school students. They’re there, but they’re not there.

And then McKibben gets to the crux of the matter: “Even those who stay the course ‘perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.’ Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, ‘A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.” [emphasis mine]

Technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information…but actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship.

And there was my McKibbeniphany.

When I finish a presentation at an elementary school, it’s a pretty common experience that I’m “rushed.” That is, a swarm of students descends and encircles me, each student vying for my attention. They want to tell me things about their lives: that they have a bossy older sister, that they have a dog like mine, that they once lived in Cleveland or that their family is Greek. If one of them is brave enough to reach out and hug me, a dam breaks, and suddenly kids—girls and boys, kindergarteners through fifth-graders—are hugging me, high-fiving me, fist-bumping me, touching my hair, reaching out to play with my bracelets. Connecting in the most basic way. It goes right back to the beginning of McKibben’s article and the discussion of the things we’ve lost: “Places where we can touch actual physical objects.” 

I have long known that for some students the single most important part of my visit to their school is the chance to come up to me after my talk and touch a real, live author. And to feel the gentle squeeze of my hand on a shoulder, to see my eyes staring directly into theirs, and to know in the most physical and elemental way: The author was here. And she looked right at me. And we shared a moment together. Whatever I might say in my presentation about ‘character development’ and ‘story arc’ and ‘the essentials of revision’ is secondary to that experience.

And you can’t get that over the Internet. McKibbeniphany!