The pandemic has thrust students of all ages more forcefully into the arms of technology. Now that the Zoom-enabled school year is underway, I’ve pondered just how far technology will go toward replacing old-fashioned, one-on-one human interaction.
It is indeed amazing what robots and chatbots can do. I schedule 90% of my meetings using an artificial intelligence “assistant” and not once has anyone guessed that their calendar appointment, reminder, and chirpy “Thanks!” came from an algorithm. And it has occurred to me that the two undergraduate classes I am now teaching remotely, attended by fewer than 100 students in total, could in theory balloon to a million at nearly zero marginal cost.
And yet my experience teaching remotely has convinced me that human beings are built for human relationships. We don’t mind buying paper towels on our browsers, but there is no one-click equivalent to feeling understood, respected, and cared for by another person.
The most rewarding part of my time with students is not when I’m clicking through slides, doing my best to look directly at the webcam and speak with clarity into the microphone. What I really look forward to each week are my office hours, which I intentionally designed to be one-on-one. During these brief conversations, my students share what’s on their mind, their questions, worries, and what-do-you-think-about-this ideas. I tell them what I’m thinking and feeling, too, and apart from taking place by video call, it’s as basic an interaction as you can imagine.
And yet it’s magical. More and more, I am getting to know my students as people. And they’re getting to know me, too.
Research suggests that healthy interpersonal relationships share three essential elements: The first is understanding—seeing the other person for who they are, including their desires, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. The second is validation—valuing the other person’s perspective, even if it differs from your own. And the third is caring—expressing authentic affection, warmth, and concern.
Don’t underestimate your power to make a difference in the life of a young person. What everyone, including me, is craving right now is genuine human connection.
Do make time for one-on-one conversations. An algorithm can metabolize a million bits of data in the blink of an eye, but an algorithm cannot look you in the eye and ask, sincerely, “How are you feeling?”
With grit and gratitude,