The Big R

December 7, 2007

I’m a graduate student of writing, English and library science. One of the biggest surprises in my education so far has been realizing that the act of reading itself–intrinsic as it is to the work that I do, the work that I hope to do, and the work of a librarian in preserving human knowledge–is one of those sites in my academic life that I have found most often and most bitterly contested. How we do it, where we do it, what we read. Like a lot of things, it seems like a lot of the people who are leaders in this field believe that people my age are doing in wrong.

This came up in my mind again this morning when I ran into Laurence Musgrove’s piece Blind, Deaf, and Dumb on Inside Higher Ed. He starts out observing that when he asks his students what their reading goal is for the semester, the most common one given is to be able to read faster. Yet he would like to teach them the opposite: “I don’t teach speed reading. I teach slow reading. I teach slow, concentrated, finger-on-the-page reading. […] Improving the relationships college students have with text is our primary responsibility.” This discussion is his prelude to dissing the Kindle and advising all faculty members to refuse to engage with it as a mode of text-delivery in a classroom setting:

It’s actually a graven image. A false gadget god engineered in the service of efficient data transfer and consumer credit. Don’t be fooled, Kindle is no innocent tool. […] My dear colleague, you will soon be expected to try it. And then you will be expected to buy it. To embrace its efficiencies and remarkable cost savings. To order your textbooks through it. To order your students to use it.

There’s a lot in this piece that I agree with–reading done right is pretty arduous work, and like a lot of other kinds of work it has tremendous benefits if you really commit to its demands. There is a kind of reading that doesn’t just happen by moving your eyes over words. I too think it’s weird that otherwise literate students experience “poetry blindness”–the perceived total inability to read poetry.

There’s a part of me, though, that feels like there’s a lot about the academic world that I live in that the Musgroves and the Sven Birkerts’s of this world don’t really see, and if they did, they would realize that their time would better be spent advocating for equal access to educational opportunity, in all of its tangible and intangible forms. To me, that’s what the debates over reading are really about. To a certain extent, I see most of the downsides of digital texts as a result rather than a driver of academic trends, as I also see the modes of reading that they enable.

I feel like my own historical timing has positioned me on both sides of the digital divide in humanities pedagogy. I have used the Internet more or less daily from the age of 9, but I didn’t use it for schoolwork until high school, and barely then. My undergrad college had a great print collection and paper-only ILL delivery, so I didn’t use electronic sources as an undergrad either. I was taught to read in a linear fashion, to read slowly, to read with a pencil in one and a dictionary nearby. In reading, I had as much of an old school education as anyone my age. At least in terms of how to read–any idea of a unified what to read was of course long (close to half a century) gone by the time I got to college.

My graduate work, however, has been conducted more or less entirely digitally. I use monographs frequently, but I can’t remember the last time I read an article in print form. This is a testament to the success of digitization projects, the effectiveness of my library’s e-collection building, and fast e-delivery through ILL–and of course, to my own laziness. But it’s not all laziness–I don’t live on campus or w/in walking distance of it (one of my degrees I’m actually completing totally online). Also, my library hasn’t been around long enough to have legacy collections of print journals from back when science journals hadn’t taken over the budget.

For the record, I love that fact. It enables me to carry around a zip drive full of pdfs rather than a bag full of unwieldly printer pages. It enables to me to divide research and reading–I can download a slew of articles and read them during my freetime, whenever I happen to have my laptop or be near a computer. At the risk of overstating this, my academic life–two master’s degrees in progess, 30 hours of work a week– would not work without this access and this flexibility. I can’t imagine that it’s any different for the vast majority of students at this campus, many of whom are probably working longer hours and carrying an equally heavy courseload. And of course many of them are non-traditional students, and really that’s just as it should be–this particular school was primarily built to serve people who for one reason or another couldn’t uproot and go to the bigger schools in the state. I also love that my library does as well as it does for the relatively short amount of time it has been around. Without digital access to journals and other materials, we couldn’t do it.

Not surpisingly, students like myself do a lot of multi-tasking. And when what we’re reading isn’t a priority, we multi-task that too, and we use commands such as find, copy, and paste to save time whenever we can.  Here’s where the trouble starts. There’s a big, big difference between reading the whole article and “quote mining” for the passage you found cited by someone else. In the end, though, if your professor is not going to hold you to the standard of having understood the author’s full argument, the difference between doing those two things becomes a little arbitrary in terms of your GPA, and unless you are invested for the long term in building a certain knowledge based, everything in our cultural moment says, save the time, paste the quote! So no, these tools don’t necessarily help us learn more, but they do help us meet the piled up demands on our time and minds.

For myself, I’ve tried to hold to a strict divide no matter how busy I am between work I do for English–which I try not to skim, not to soundbyte w/ the find function, and always write the first draft longhand– and the work for library science, which isn’t really about intellect so much as practical knowledge, where I look for the shortest distance between me and a 10 page paper. Not inconsequently, I have a much different relationship with library science texts. Such as they are.

But. I think that I am increasingly in the minority here, and I’m not sure there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that. Sure, I’d love to advocate for the approach that has somehow assembled itself in my own path: learn the hard, physical way first, and then go crazy with your T-1 connection later. But the fact that I learned that way wasn’t a choice on my part, it was what everyone did while I was doing it. I went to a small liberal arts school and never had to work more than a work-study job. I didn’t have to drive, cook, or clean. My library and my campus were covered with big, comfy couches. So, we pretty much had the optimal environment if traditional reading was the goal. Not everyone has that. That is not the most common model now, if it ever was. Students don’t necessarily get to choose what kind of school they go to. So if they don’t have the time or they aren’t taught to read the way that students past have been, it’s not like they’ve given in to some unholy force that threatens to undo the bonds holding the cultural universe together. They’re getting the job done–it’s a different job, and if you think that should change, then we’d have to change a whole lot more than e-books.

If Musgrove is right in his prediction that the Kindle predicts a time when all textbooks will be e-books and students will experience no divide between the wired digital textual world and the static print textual world that he was educated in, would this really be such a disaster? Yes, it would be different. But it would also save paper, save aching backs, save time–possibly put a few bookstore and shipping workers out of a job as well, but they can devote their time to selling branded university merchandise instead. Probably, the same students that read the whole book in the first place will keep reading the whole book.

So when Musgrove and Birkerts tell me I’m doing it wrong, and they feel that society is headed downhill starting with me and my tabbed browsing, I feel the need to stand up for the realities of my day. I’m not necessarily dumber because I was born later, into a different set of reading possibilities. If I never do it the way they did it, I’m not necessarily lacking. Academic idealism can have many forms, and I think in all forms it has always been rare. I think Musgrove titled his piece “Blind, Deaf, and Dumb” to refer to the Kindle itself, because I’d like to think that the leaders of academia have the ability to differentiate between some inherent flaw in their students and the cultural circumstances they have found themselves in.

Then, there’s Kenny  Goldsmith. Who would say we’re all kidding ourselves that reading still exists anyway.


2 Responses to “The Big R”

  1. It’s funny–I’m posting this comment in between grading the final exams I just gave, and I’m doing it because I find I stay fresher on my grading if I intersperse it with some other activity. I’m less likely to take out my brain-ache on them if I relax some other way.

    When I saw the Kindle, I immediately wanted one–I told Amy that I want one for my next birthday, because by next November, there will be a second generation version out that will have worked out a lot of the kinks. I want it because I’m a horribly fickle reader, and often read several books at once, not including the reading I do for class prep. If I could use a single Kindle or Kindle-approximation to teach from, I’d save my back a ton of agony walking across campus. The only advantage paper has over something like Kindle, in my opinion, is that your eyes don’t dry out as quickly, but reading under crappy fluorescent lights (as opposed to the new soft ones) does pretty much the same thing.

    Give me the technology!

  2. SJ Says:

    Indeed–my back is begging for a Kindle, and ever since the iPhone, I’ve been pretty sure that the future is handheld and mobile, and that’s all there is to it.

    If I could ban one thing right this minute, it’d probably be crappy flourescent lights. The pain.

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