Friday, May 14, 2010

Reading in a Digital Age

(This post builds a bit on Luke's post on print in a digital age.)

I've been thinking a bit about my students' reading habits (which are pretty much non-existent). It's been such a challenge to get them to read for LIB 200, and I've packed the syllabus with graphic novels and short essays (one-page handouts) that build on film excerpts (documentary and YouTube clips).

I realized that in our basic writing classes, students can and often do often leave the reading for the day of class. (In group work, they can and do catch up.) But you can't do that with a longer text. My course ends with a few chapters of Frankenstein (with film clips from the Kenneth Branagh adaptation). Originally, I had planned to tackle the whole novel. Now it's a few chapters.

I was just thinking of how convenient and useful print is for class discussions. If we rely on digital versions of texts, until students have iPads or nooks or Kindles or whatever, they wouldn't be able to use these digital version for the midterm or final. There is something valuable about print (such as consistent pagination). How would I choose selected chapters of a novel or novella using an e-text? The pagination is entirely different.

A bright idea: If I were in charge of digital strategy at Blackboard, I would create a reliable e-book platform that would deliver electronic texts / textbooks to web browsers, smartphones, iPhones, iPads and even Kindles in a consistent way. Then no matter what flavor of e-reader, students could at least agree on what the text is for class.... It's so clear the e-book market is fragmenting--even with e-textbooks, content cannot be shared across different 'mobile platforms'.... And this trend isn't going to get any better as different computer manufacturers (yes, that's you Steve Jobs) strive to keep the other team's content off their devices. Whatever happened to open standards?

Yet there's hope for print. In my ENG 102, my students were reading a graphic novel (manga edition) of Shakespeare's The Tempest. In group work the other day, they were discussing sections from Act III--and there was some really excellent close reading going on. And flipping pages! And pointing at the way characters were drawn. Maybe graphic novels will save close reading!... I can't imagine this kind of conversation going on with a small-footprint device, which is really only viewable by a single reader/user....

So I still prefer print for teaching--as they say in Avenue Q, "For now"....


  1. I completely agree.

    I find myself working with print a lot, because there are a lot of cues in print that don't exist online.

    Every article from a subscription database looks pretty much the same, making it that much harder to determine scholarly from popular from newspaper.

    The physical items (or PDF versions) have more cues that can help students learn to decode what it is they're working with.

  2. You know, I am 95% paperless in all of my classes. The one exception this semester (that 5%) was a collection on philosophy and The Matrix for my cluster and Neil Gaiman's adolescent novel Coraline for ENG102. Two weeks into the semester, my cluster class found a free PDF copy of the Matrix book and they just printed out the chapters we used as needed.

    I think I am on record as loathing textbooks but loving books. But, I also hate the bookstore machine, so I think we need a balance. My rule right now is: one book under $20. It seems to be working.

  3. I agree that the explosion of digital text is making everyone's life a lot more complicated. That is why I have class packets.

    On the other hand, the redundancy may not be bad. For instance, while my Shakespeare students wait for their print copies of No Fear Shakespeare from Amazon, they use the online copies provided by Sparknotes. Granted, Shakespeare is easier because our cues come from act, scene, line...

  4. I have many reasons for preferring print sources and I think certain textbook editions (such as the Norton literature surveys and the "case studies in contemporary criticism" series) provide wealth of context and varied criticism that a text-only electronic version cannot provide usually. Having said that, I have found that whenever I taught Eliot's "The Wasteland," the students found this form far more helpful ( So, if more e-texts were like that I could see moving to electronic versions. But, such would be helpful only if students did the work before coming to class or if we were always in a computer lab; and how often can we count on either of these possibilities?