"Stepping Out" by David Sedaris
The 2016 Common Community Reading “Stepping Out,” by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is one of the most noteworthy essayists of the late 20th and 21st centuries. His essays are typically very funny, but also point to difficult truths about human behavior. Often his essays deal with relatively “mature” content that would not be suitable for a Common Reading selection. However, “Stepping Out” deals, on the surface, with Sedaris’ obsession with his Fitbit activity tracker, a timely topic (our relationship with technology) that we believe you will find relatable. At another level, the essay is about obsession and addiction more generally, a topic that would have applications to other facets of Catawba’s Orientation. The essay also allows us to examine how “tracking” daily steps taken without looking at the larger picture is like focusing on individual college courses, rather than seeing the big picture about the nature and purpose of a Catawba College education. Still another level of the essay is the concept of relationships: with others, with a place, with oneself. Therefore, we believe that this selection represents a good choice for a “summer” reading, but also provides several layers for you to explore during a classroom-based discussion.
Reading and Study Guide
Before You Read
You are about to read an essay called “Stepping Out” by David Sedaris published in the Personal History section of The New Yorker. Active reading for college requires you to do some work before you actually begin reading. To prepare to read this article, please respond to the following:
- The author of this essay is David Sedaris. Use the Internet to find out something about him. (A simple Google search will do.) Who is he? What else has he written about? Where is he from?
- This essay was published in The New Yorker. What do you know about The New Yorker? Go to http://www.newyorker.com/ and find the “About Us” link at the bottom of the page. What does this tell you about the magazine? Who do you think reads this magazine? View the “Personal History” section at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/personal-history. How does this section differ in tone and audience from The New Yorker?
- Do you—or does someone you know—own a Fitbit, Jawbone, Vivosmart or other activity tracker? Why do you think these activity trackers have become so ubiquitous in the past 2-3 years?
While You Read
In college, it is important to read with a pen or pencil in your hand so you can mark passages that seem important (even if you can’t quite say why they’re important), confusing, or strange, and so that you can write down definitions of words you don’t know as you read. You could also write down reactions to what you read, or a note about what something reminds you of from another context.
First, print a copy of the essay. Your professor likely sent you a link to the essay, or forwarded it as a PDF. After you have printed it, please number the pages. This will make it easier for you to take notes and to participate in a discussion of it during Orientation.
Next, read the list of questions that follows. It is important to read them all before you begin reading the essay so that you know what kind of information to be looking for.
As you read, make notes about the following questions and anything else you want to.
- Sedaris appears to anthropomorphize (look it up!) his activity tracker. In one example, his partner, Hugh, asks him why twelve thousand steps isn’t enough. Sedaris replies, “Because… my Fitbit thinks I can do better.” How might assigning human emotions to a thing be harmful?
- In many ways, this essay is a narrative of relationships. We meet Lesley, Thelma, Dawn, Janine, Maja, and Hugh. As these people are mentioned, underline their names and then write in the margin what these relationships are based on (friendship, fitness, love, etc.).
- Consider how these relationships change or are replaced as Sedaris grows more and more obsessed with his Fitbit.
- How does his relationship with place (airports, country roads, home) evolve? Write your ideas in the margins as you encounter these places.
- I was traveling myself when I got my Fitbit, and because the tingle feels so good, not just as a sensation but also as a mark of accomplishment, I began pacing the airport…
- Why is it that some people can manage a thing like a Fitbit, while others go off the rails and allow it to rule, and perhaps even ruin, their lives?
- I was devastated when I tapped the broadest part of it and the little dots failed to appear. Then I felt a great sense of freedom. It seemed that my life was now my own again… I lasted five hours before I ordered a replacement, express delivery.
How might these lines lend the essay a darker tone, pushing it into a story about addiction? Are these quotes meant to be taken at face value? Or, is there a level of playfulness or sarcasm? Are there similar quotes in the essay that strike the same chord? Underline them.
After You Finish Reading
Now that you have finished reading the essay, spend some time reflecting on it. Respond to the following questions, in writing. You should have a conversation with the text. Write down questions you have about the meaning of words, points of disagreement with the author, or to remind yourself to think more deeply about specific passages after your first reading.
Throughout the essay, Sedaris introduces us to a number of friends. How does his relationship with this technology – his Fitbit – enhance and/or detract from his relationships with people?
- How might relationships with technology generally, or with specific modern technologically-advanced gadgets (such as our smartphones and tablets, other wearable tech devices, etc.) impact our relationships with people in a positive manner? In a negative manner?
Now consider your undergraduate education at Catawba College.
- How could you measure your success at Catawba?
- Is your degree audit, an “education tracker” that lists all of your completed courses, an effective measure of how far you’ve come in reaching your undergraduate goals? Are grades?
- How is treating the “tracking” of your college education through courses taken and grades earned similar and dissimilar to Sedaris’ tracking of his “steps” rather than physical fitness?
- What is the goal of college education, its overarching purpose?
- What do you think is the difference between “mastery” and “performance” in college?
- Are all of your goals at Catawba educational in nature? How would you go about measuring your progress on these non-educational goals?
An activity tracker is meant, at least at some level, to motivate people. The Fitbit website, for example, proclaims, “Whether you want to use heart rate to take your fitness to the next level or just want to see how your steps add up each day, there’s a Fitbit tracker for your goals.”
- What intrigues Sedaris about the Fitbit he notices on Lesley’s wrist?
- At what point in the narrative do you think his Fitbit becomes more of an obsession than a motivation? Or does it?
- What is the difference between motivation to reach goals and an obsession?
Think about the story that Sedaris tells when recalling his experience with the Fitbit. He recalls his memorable experiences and observations (for example, the toffee-colored cow giving birth, the animals and kinds of trash he sees).
- Do these observations improve his commentary on his Fitbit experience?
- Would he have had these experiences and learned new things about his neighbors and neighborhood without the Fitbit?
- How do you think unexpected experiences you will have at Catawba will shape your story? Will they change you in important ways? Will they enrich your time here?
What questions or ideas do you have about this text that you would like to raise during your seminar’s discussion of the article?