Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #5)

I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and are on track for a successful end to your fall semester.  After getting back from a visit with my in-laws in Springfield, Illinois, I find myself swimming furiously in a sea of student papers, articles and manuscripts in need of peer review, and revision of my own writing.  There’s also the constant rush of students in and out of my office now that they’ve discovered (belatedly) the location of my office as well as my posted office hours.  Ah, the glamorous life of the academic.  ; )

In my last blog post, I focused on the use of Twitter for academic purposes. This month I’d like to discuss the use of electronic texts in the classroom.  Among my colleagues at UIC, there is a robust debate over whether it is appropriate at all to invite the use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom.  Some faculty choose to prohibit phones, tablets, and laptops from their classrooms and require students to purchase hard copies of books and print out articles for discussion in class.  Other faculty on campus only use electronic texts, print sources than have been scanned or coded into an electronic format or sources that only exist electronically.

My approach is a hybrid of these two poles.  Certain books I prefer to have students buy in hard copy or print out.  These are typically sources that we will be reading closely or analyzing multiple times.  Other resources, mostly contextual in nature, I prefer students to access electronically as needed.  The rationale behind this decision does have some research to back it up, but is based largely on my teaching experience as well as feedback I have received from students.  “Close reading,” “Analytical Reading,” “Hermeneutics,” call it what you will, depends upon a form of deep concentration that it is hard for us to achieve when we are scrolling up and down a computer screen.  True (as Franco Moretti points out) readers have been engaged in superficial readings of texts for as long as humans have been writing language down.  However, it is just too easy for me to shift to Facebook, Twitter, or another document when reading an electronic text or skim rapidly across the words on the screen without registering much beyond the “gist” of what I have read.  With a  book or article in hand, I feel pressure to go back over text my eyes have lazily gazed over and highlight/annotate the parts of the text that seem significant.

Students in my courses have generally agreed with this assessment.  Contra Cathy Davidson whose most recent book, Now You See It, champions the benefits of distraction, students on the UIC campus have complained to me about how hard it is to focus with their phones buzzing and pinging with updates and notifications from various apps.  They have also found the technological limits of wifi, software compatibility, and device battery life a challenge.  We joked in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory course several semester’s ago that the main vulnerabilities of the codex as interface are water and fire.  Other than that, as long as you don’t lose the book or print article, you’re good to go.

These significant drawbacks to the electronic text have often left me skeptical about the best way to use them (if at all).  As I mentioned earlier, the main ways in which I have found electronic texts useful have been contextual in nature. This includes bringing historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, photographs, and maps into the classroom.  These supplementary texts help us better understand the social background of the writings we are analyzing.  Another effective use of electronic texts has been when a work is otherwise unavailable in print for students to read.  Most of the authors I teach and research are now part of the public domain, making their work freely accessible for all to distribute in whatever way they see fit.  What better way to appreciate the literary context that influenced an author’s aesthetic than to read the works of his or her contemporaries for comparison.

Perhaps the greatest source of influence in my decision on whether or not to assign an electronic text, however, has not been pedagogical at all.  Instead it has been driven by the rising cost of student textbooks.  The anthology I used in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory cost students on average $115 to buy.  Renting the book lowered the cost to around $70.  This might not seem like much in comparison to texts in other courses that can cost significantly more or software programs that students are required to buy for majors in the architecture and the sciences.  Yet the cost adds up over time.  Whenever I assign a print book or article, I make sure that we are in fact going to read the text exhaustively.  That it is in ever sense a “required” text for the course.  Anything that might even be vaguely considered supplemental, reference oriented, or “recommended” is assigned in an electronic format to save costs.

Now at this point it is worth acknowledging the hidden and often not so hidden cost of e-texts.  Publishers come by my office on a near constant basis around this time of the year, particularly Pearson.  They are more than eager to sell my students access to proprietary websites that mediate between them and the things they will be reading.  One example is MyReadingLab.  The allure of such technology is that it lessens my workload in and out of the classroom.  But is it worth the cost?  To me, at least, it isn’t.  I would rather find online resources that are either free or more affordable and link students to them via our course management site, Blackboard.  There is also the transfer of costs to students in printing fees, my xerox budget has been cut dramatically by my department, as well as the cost of buying a device to read electronic texts on.  Sure, a sizable number of our students have smartphones today, but who wants to read a novel on a iPhone?  Even youthful eyes are strained reading that tiny print.

The only honest way to conclude a discussion of electronic texts in the classroom is to admit that the data is mixed.  Their are numerous disadvantages to moving away from print texts but there are also many benefits.  I hope to have a fruitful discussion on both during my round table presentation in Hartford on “required texts” and “authoritative” editions of literary works.  In the meantime, if you have been using electronic texts successfully or unsuccessfully in the literature classroom, let me know.  If you haven’t tried using them at all, experiment with a few this spring.  Teaching and scholarship after all are a great adventure.  Why else would we keep slogging along through the seemingly endless writings by students and colleagues that call for our attention on an almost daily basis?

In my next blog post, I intend to revisit my comments on Pearson and other educational resource providers (including Blackboard).  What should scholars know when they enter the market for educational technology?  How can we choose the tools that make sense for our pedagogy when we are limited by lack of knowledge, money, and sometimes institutional bureaucracy?

Until next time….

John Casey

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