Sunday, October 23, 2011

The cult of paper

As it happens, my ENG 101 students and I are in E-272 and students are about to respond to a blog question which asks that they apply their findings from last week's exploration of Oedipus the King to perspectives on truth and illusion. Previously they read Plato's excerpt from the Republic usually referenced as "the allegory of the cave" and following that they watched The Matrix, albeit at home.

Students start going over their notes, except one of them opens up Oedipus on the screen. "You must use the paper copy with your notes" I insist. The student, who is not one of those troublesome ones, responds that it will be easier to find the parts of the text he remembers apply to the prompt question if he has the "find" feature of the browser. I do not even entertain the possibility "No, it must be your text. You can't access any websites while composing" is my final verdict.

At the end of the assignment as he walks out the door, he comes to my desk and states "was there a reason we had to waste time doing it on paper?" I inform him that yes there is, and we can address it in a future class if he wishes. He informs me that he would. So I go home and start thinking about the very issue (as I see from Michelle's post, it was a week for reflecting on technology and its uses).

Granted, I do not consider myself a fan of technology despite my curiosity and willingness to adopt and become familiar  with it, especially for teaching. Every Friday morning, away from work and obligations, I pick up the New York Times and go to my favorite coffee shop and I spend between two to three hours reading it, a remnant of my European upbringing. While over the week I browse newspapers articles online or on my iphone, such browsing is passing the time. The experience, the pleasure, is only the physical copy. Furthermore, one of my big concerns with technology is when it is employed to do something that could be done without it, just for show. In fact, my rule is that if something can be done the same with and wihout technology, then technology goes.

Back to Oedipus though: this was not a literature class, where I wanted students to closely read the text (setting aside the innate futility of doing so with a translated text to begin with). I wanted students to:

  • learn how to incorporate textual evidence into their own text
  • analyze textual evidence 
  • use textual evidence to support their own argument

In short, I am not sure that the time spent looking for a quotation on paper, when a student vaguely recalled it and could have typed up a phrase to locate it electronically in a fraction of the time, was productive time. Perhaps as an English professor I attribute an atavistic quality to the endeavor of highlighting a text and making marginal notes, but even these are activities that could have taken place before (or the student could have created a google docs file with the text and his comments). I am not ready to shift my whole attitude based on this instance, but obviously I am not as certain of the right course of action as I was before this simple question arose.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the whole point of using tech is that it allows for a (positive) experience that would not exist otherwise. So if your goal was for them just to find material to use for their next paper quickly, sure, they could have used the online text + the "find" function.

    On the other hand, if the idea was to have them connect the texts, then a more deliberate approach is indicated, no? (or maybe not). If so, my friend, paper would seem to be better than the screen, as the whole point of "find" is to *ignore* text and zero on a specific item.

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