Response to “How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities” (with Class Activity)

For the past five years, I’ve been examining the pros and cons of reading on-screen versus in print. The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called “deep reading” is nearly always better done in print.

Naomi S. Baron via How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities – Commentary – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Baron’s short discussion of digital versus print texts in the humanities classroom caught my eye, probably because it reinforced some thoughts I expressed in a previous post when a family friend urged me to purchase e-texts so he’d have less books to move for me. In that post, I commented that bound books are easier to use in the classroom, and Baron supports that statement in “How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities”; she writes of the results of a survey taken by students on the pros and cons of bound books and e-books:

Several open-ended questions on my survey were particularly revelatory. I asked what people liked most (and least) about reading in each medium. Common responses for what students liked most about reading in print included “I can write on the pages and remember the material easier” and “it’s easier to focus.” When asked what they liked least about reading on-screen, a number of Japanese students reported that it wasn’t “real reading,” while respondents from all three countries complained that they “get distracted” or “don’t absorb as much.”

My all-time favorite reply to the question “What is the one thing you like least about reading in print?” came from an American: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.” Isn’t careful reading what academe was designed to promote?

Which brings us back to the humanities.

Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing.

Teachers and scholars must look beyond today’s career-mindedness in talking about challenges to the humanities. We need to think more carefully about students’ mounting rejection of long-form reading, now intensified by digital technologies that further complicate our struggle to engage students in serious text-based inquiry. (Baron)

As a student, I can testify to the veracity of Baron’s survey results. Texts that I read via a paper copy (whether a bound book or printed article) invariably taught me more and stayed with me longer than those texts read digitally. In fact, as a graduate student, I would frequently make decisions regarding whether to purchase print copies or digital copies of a text based on whether I thought the text would (or could) prove to be significant or relevant to my personal research interests and fields of study; texts that merely fell into required reading for a course were downloaded digitally as not being worth the (extra) money spent.

Kindle App, e-texts, technology

Screen Shot of my Kindle App for Mac

But as a graduate student in English literature, I am far more aware of my personal reading habits and reading needs than first- or second-year undergrads.

I think Baron’s short essay may prove useful in introductory English classrooms, particularly those introducing students to the study of literature (although it could be equally relevant in the composition classroom if reading skills are being stressed). This is not to force my students to purchase paper copies of texts, but to at least get them thinking about the difference medium can have on their reading practices. Such a discussion could easily be used to transition into a discussion of close reading strategies or even active reading and learning; it would also offer students an opportunity to reflect on their current reading practices.

Furthermore, an activity whereby half the class is asked to read Baron’s piece (or an assigned short story or critical article) online while the other is given a paper copy to read could prove both interesting and enlightening. Would the students with the paper copy of such a short piece prove more able to discuss the points in detail than those who read online? Or would the results of such a small sampling prove to be inconclusive, or even the opposite? No matter the result, I think such an activity and discussion could function as a simple and productive gateway to what we mean by “reading” in the English classroom. Moreover, I think this activity would urge students to reflect on their own reading practices and encourage them to make thoughtful choices when it comes to reading medium and their learning in general.

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The Lit Lover’s Dilemma: Where Do I Store All My BOOKS?

As every literature student, instructor, collector, lover, etc. knows, bound books take up valuable living space. A lot of space. As every literature lover who has had to move knows, bound books are HEAVY. As a rabid reader of fiction since junior high school, I have accumulated A LOT of books though the years, as anyone who has helped me move can attest. And every time I move, I determine to downsize. But I can never part with my books, and since I continue to buy more each year, my collection continues to grow.

Book Cover Images

A small selection of titles in my bound-book collection.

E-BOOKS AS SPACE SAVERS?

As I am currently once more in the process of moving, the dilemma caused by my extensive bound book collection is fresh on my mind. I have too many boxes of books to count packed and stuffed into the one-bedroom apartment I currently share with another. We won’t move into a two-bedroom apartment until August, so I tried to anticipate my writing and reference needs by filling a suitcase with “necessary” books for easy (or simply easier) access.

A family friend who helped move me from Michigan to Minnesota lamented (repeatedly), “More boxes of books?! Why do you have so many books? Haven’t you heard of e-books?”

In theory, I have no problem with e-books. I own a number of them actually. But there are many reasons I continue to use and purchase bound books.

1. I owned the bound book before the e-book was available.

A lot of my books, in particular my non-academic, mass-market paperback genre fiction novels, were purchased before the release of the e-reader. These are the books I tend to purchase as e-books because it is simply easier and saves space; it’s also more convenient for vacation or relaxation (aka “fun”) reading as you can access a variety of texts anywhere, anytime with an e-reader. But as much as I’d like to simply replace these bound texts, it is not financially feasible on a graduate student budget. I keep telling myself I’ll do so when I get my (dream) job and can afford to do so.

2. Bound books are easier to use as sources for literary analysis.

When I’m analyzing a text and writing an argument about it, it’s a lot easier (for me) to reference a bound version of the primary text. This is because I can mark relevant quotations, make marginal notes, and skip around within the text as needed. Finding unmarked passages that I need is also easier to do in a bound book, as you can fan through the pages as needed and have a better idea of physical location (for example, I’m looking for a passage in the middle of the book so I’m fanning/skimming in that area). While I can mark, take notes, and sometimes search through e-books, skimming really doesn’t work, and I can’t move quickly back and forth between difference notes, marked passages, etc. as I can with a bound book. Furthermore, MLA citation requires page numbers that are usually unavailable in a digital format.

3. Bound books are easier to use in the classroom.

For many of the same reasons listed in the previous point, a bound book is easier to use in the classroom, as the class moves from passage to passage, not necessarily in any chronological order. This is especially the case as an instructor, I think. I’ve used e-books in the classroom as a student (it’s hard to pass up free 19th-century texts) and have found them clunky and unwieldy. Even using the search function to locate specific passages, I am inevitably behind in the conversation, unlike those students who can simply reference a page and paragraph number.

4. Used bound books are cheap.

I love used book stores. One of my favorites is Half-Price Books, and I’ve found some excellent deals on both literary texts and literary criticism/theory texts at their stores (particularly if I visit a store located near one or more college campuses). Cheap bound books are also available on Amazon. While e-books are often (but not always) cheaper than their bound counterparts, used bound books are often cheaper still. So until I can purchase a “used” e-book, I cannot overlook the deals available on used bound books.

5. A lot of critical texts are unavailable as an e-book. Numerous academic monographs, anthologies, etc. are not available in any form other than bound hardcopy. This means access is limited to purchasing the bound book or borrowing the bound book from a library. While the library is often a good source, purchasing the book allows unlimited, repeated access and reference, and it can sometimes be quicker as well.

6. Bound books are more aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes it’s just nice to admire a book cover or unusual binding, to hold a book in your hands and smell its pleasantly musty scent. In my opinion, personalized epigraphs and signatures in books received as gifts also adds value. Yes, they’re dust-traps, but don’t they look nice displayed on your books shelf???

BOOK STORAGE CONCLUSION

I think these are pretty good reasons to keep my collection of bound books. I obviously didn’t explain this in detail to the lamenting family friend, but his lament’s did encourage me to think about this in more detail. (My response on moving day was “I’m an English major.”)

And regarding storage space, I’ll simply have to invest in another bookshelf to make up for the loss of the built-in shelf I sadly said goodbye to in my Michigan apartment. Off to Ikea I go! I’m also looking to purchase a rolling book cart (like those used in libraries) to store some books in my closet. Maybe some day I’ll use that same cart in my own home library…