Head of School Blog

An Oxymoron with a Cautionary Tale: Absent Presenc

Jill Singleton
We’re all guilty of it, and we all know it when we see it: physical presence compromised when technology creates absence. Kenneth Gergen of Swarthmore College defined it this way: “One is physically present, but is absorbed by a technologically mediated world of elsewhere.”

I had an experience this summer that really gave me pause. Conscious of time passing and the precious days and weeks left before my oldest son would go to college, Stone and I went out for a nice dinner at the Madison(one of my favorites). The evening was especially warm and muggy, so we opted to sit inside where we could enjoy the air conditioning. Throughout the dinner I couldn’t help but notice this one adult and child sitting alone at a table; I assumed them to be father and son. Throughout the evening, the child, who could have been no more than five, spent his time in the absent presence of his father, who was continuously absorbed by his mobile device. I don’t think there were more than a few sentences exchanged between the two, and I couldn’t help but sadly register that this is a whole new skill our children need to develop – the patience to sit and pass the time while the people who love us most are paying attention via a mobile device to someone or something else that is seemingly more important. These skills will suffice, of course, until the child himself follows suit and joins the ranks of those who exist in our new world of absent presence.

Of course there was a part of me that sympathized with the dad. We are all becoming victims of our new friend, the ever-present smartphone, iPad, etc, pressuring us to answer someone as soon as is humanly possible lest we receive the email that sets us into a moment of feeling like we’re falling dangerously behind – “Did you get my email?” – along with the implication that your lack of response has been noted.

Given the above, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised with the choice of Middle Schoolers this year for a theme of focus for their Month of the Young Adolescent studies in October. This year students have chosen to look at the issue of texting while driving – a phenomenon that takes the issue of absent presence to a potentially deadly level.

At All Saints we are trying to preserve physical presence and attention by restricting the time teachers spend on email to those hours before and after the school day so that they can be physically and mentally present for our students. Nothing is more important than the one-on-one attention our students receive, and we want to ensure that teachers are not seduced into the “I’ll just quickly check my email” trap that we all know is real and omnipresent. This high quality interaction between teachers and students is a gift you give your child – it’s the very reason we all make sacrifices to send our children to independent schools.

I count myself as one who needs to create some structure and boundaries around when and how often I check my emails. In the spring, I started what I call a “technology Sabbath.” From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon I do not check my email. I spend time with family and my children instead – or I walk the dogs, read a book, bake some cookies. In a Wall Street Journal article titled “Technology Has Us So Plugged Into Data, We Have Turned Off,” Dennis Berman said, “Just as feasting on an abundance of rich, available food can make you overweight, so we seem gorged on too much easily accessed information. We need a kind of information diet. Technology could help, by allowing computer users to program in a daily cap of, say, two hours of Web surfing. Or to allow the sending of only 100 instant messages per day. Or to install a system that allows the checking of e-mail only three times per day.”

I invite you all to consider such a policy for you and your family this year. You might just be delighted with the results.

Questions, comments, concerns? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com