To ebook or not to ebook?

One of my tasks this fall has been re-editing my Introduction to Humanities Reader, a collection of public domain snippets and translations packaged in a cheap self-published paperback edition.  I add in introductions, essay prompts and some tips on citation, but it's just an old-fashioned reader, not so different from what students would have read in a pre-digital age course.  As the self-publisher, however, there's an interesting question before me. Should I offer my Reader as a 99-cent e-book as well as a $9.00 paperback?

I've been thinking about it and I don't think I will. 

I've noticed lately a disturbing trend.  More than one student has come to me saying (quietly and with some concern) that they just don't seem to be able to focus.  They read the material, but it just swims inchoately before them.  It doesn't make any sense.  There's almost a undertone of fear in their voices, as if they suspect that something has gone neurologically haywire in their brain.  I am beginning to fear they are right because I've noticed it's also been happening to me.

I've always been a reader, but lately I've found it harder and harder to stay focused on big, demanding reads.  I find myself saving them for airplane flights or week-long fishing trips, times when I know I will be off line for days.  Indeed, it's hubris to think that those of us who gained our reading chops before the on-line world emerged are somehow immune to its effects.

The reading we do on-line--or to be precise the grazing we do on-line--inevitably creates an environment of fractured attention, an expectation of ceaseless stimulation and an unwillingness to wait, be bored or to let ideas unfold and gestate.  We just don't have to live with demanding or disagreeable texts when the siren call of something better is a neural twitch and click away.  What my fearful students are describing (and I am experiencing) is an inability to focus deeply on an idea or a text.

Here's the problem: I know what deep focus feels like, so it's one thing for me to reawaken those muscles.  I can do it with a little effort.  I just have to unplug and be intentional.  My students, however, have never had this experience.  They have no muscle memory. 

A passage in MIT Researcher Sherry Turkle's new book,  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, recounts the story of Reyna, a 14-year old student who had been issued an iPad by her middle school.  Reyna found that it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on her assigned readings if she used the iPad, so she took to printing them out and reading them off-line.  It was just too difficult to process ideas when email, Facebook, Candy Crush and any number of beguiling apps were one click away.  Reyna needed to remove the tech to focus.

Some, of course, say that "hyper attention" is the new normal, the mindset of the 21rst century.  They argue that handwringers like me are being "unhelpfully nostalgic" about the value of deep focus reading.  Literary theorist Katherine Haynes, for example, points out that we can either "change the students to fit the environment or change the environment to fit the student."   And, given the reality of the contemporary classroom, changing how we deliver and package information is the only option.

This means eliminating lulls or opportunities for attentions to flag in the classroom by letting students "Google Jockey" throughout the period.  They can look up terms, Twitter feed questions and ideas to classmates and stay on top of multiple message platforms.  This is the future, change is inevitable. 

Turkle's a skeptic of this and so am I.  As an aside, I've always questioned the "get with the program because change is inevitable argument" so beloved by Marxists and technophiles. (If change is inevitable, why do I need to do anything?)

So, no.  I don't think I'll publish an ebook version of my Reader.  Students are going to have to read it the old-fashioned way by running their eyeballs over paper.  If I could I might even throw in a hammock with each copy and perhaps a gadget embedded in the spine that would cause the pages to appear blank if they were within 25 feet of any operating electronic device.

Go deep or go home, baby.


Anti-Dada said…
Wow ... this might be the most important writing you have posted in your blog all year. I admit to being lazy in following your blog over the past two or three months and that has followed my own lagging efforts in writing for my own blogs. Interestingly enough, I have failed at writing in a serious way over that time in the same way you describe being lazy in your reading efforts. Something, whatever it might be, has withered my attention span during that time. I wish I knew what it was and it may be the onslaught of reading short essays and articles or FB entries or whatnot, but no matter the cause, my attention span has shortened.

But you're onto something important and I believe we've discussed this issue in different ways previously. I have long wondered and been concerned about how young people who have grown up in the digital age have adapted their attentiveness to cultural norms. In the past, you have had a more optimistic viewpoint than I in relation to this issue, but in this post you describe evidence of a shift in your students and one that you, also, are experiencing.

As you said, you have the "muscle memory" necessary to delve more deeply into a long and complex text but you are seeing in students an absence of that muscle memory because of a lack of experience. I wonder, in a serious way, whether such a muscle memory can be built by late teens and early 20s. I don't know, but certainly, outside of class, there is little impetus to develop such an attention span through continuous and long-term readings of literature and non-fiction. How well would any of your students do if they had to tackle the cannon of Albert Camus, his literature and collections of essays (as an example)? I'm not hopeful.

At the same time, I am experiencing something very similar to what you are describing, getting caught up in the flashing lights and easy clicks of links to short articles and video clips that, in the end, provide little in the way of the complexity necessary to not only build but to even sustain a certain level of attentiveness. This does not bode well for me or you any more than the future of humanity.

I sense a class division developing between those who can sustain attention and those who cannot. There is a possibility that the "rural child" will develop a far greater attention span than the "urban child." Maybe ... maybe not. But to advance in an academic sense (and possibly in any field beyond academia) a certain measure of attentiveness is required. Yes, there is power in being able to "shift gears" quickly and turn focus to something other than what is at hand, but such a skill has to be combined with an ability to focus for long periods of time on a single subject, a given issue. If not ... then what? A generation of easily manipulated minds, minds underdeveloped and undisciplined, unable to resist flashing lights and catchy jingles? I don't know.

I'm of a mixed mind in these matters, but still hold to the pessimism I have long adopted related to these matters. In that sense, I am glad you aren't creating an ebook. I don't know if it's too late for college-aged students to develop attentive skills, but without definitive proof one way or the other, I think it's worth the attempt to instill in a new generation the power of deep reading and the development of high-intensity focus. At the same time, I feel sad for the students who are (quietly) coming to you expressing such difficulty with longer readings on paper. It's hard to fault them for being so disabled (and what other way can I describe the condition?) given the culture that has raised them. It's heartbreaking in a way; how horrible would it be to not have such skills when most of them likely have minds that were (if not are) capable of being better developed in terms of focus, attentiveness, and the ability to grasp and make use of complexity?
Professor Quest said…
I really recommend Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together" and her more recent "Reclaiming Conversation." A real game changer for me was reading Maryanne Wolf's "Proust and the Squid," which delves into the research on reading and the brain. Woolf notes how learning to read--and by extension learning to read deeply--are not bequeathed through evolution like eye color or opposable thumbs. It's a developmental add-on that neurologically rewires the brain to fit symbolic communication. It takes a prolonged period to produce this rewiring. Indeed some theorists (like the late Neil Postman) have argued that our modern notion of childhood from 1 to 18 is a byproduct of the move toward mass public education, a legacy of the Enlightenment. It just takes a long time to rewire the brain to symbols, but this "add-on" to the brain's architecture can vanish in a single generation. Yesterday, for example, we received a flier for Toys-R-Us in our mail. As Postman might have predicted, a post-literate society would see a change in childhood. I noticed the flier had fewer toys and more electronic games, Ipads and apps. Kids buy the same stuff adults do these days. Less Barbies and Ken, more next gen iphones.

On another note, you mention that an urban/rural divide in literacy might open up. I don't know about that, but I have noticed something in my students that seems to buck the trend: prolonged military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can't tell you how many student/veterans have told me they began to read seriously when they were stationed in the Mideast and bored out of their skulls. A few students who have done prison time have told me something similar. Boredom has historically produced more readers than intellectual curiosity. But no one ever has to be bored these days. You just reach for the phone.
Anti-Dada said…
Excellent reply, Doc. There's a lot to explore. I'll start with the latter. The reason I mentioned a rural/urban distinction was due to an intuition that parallels your experience with students who had read while in the military abroad and while in prison. I was thinking the same might be true of kids growing up in rural environments, environments in which there are less social or social media outlets. Like I said, it's an intuition, but I remember as a kid when my parents would take my brother and I to our cabin which was remotely located that I tended to read much more, whiling away afternoons in the rain and even as a break on the sunny days when we'd go out into the wetlands to catch frogs and whatever other crazy kid stuff we did back then. I might be wrong about today's rural generation, though. Maybe they are just as infested with electronic media as urban kids. I don't know. But I think you're right about boredom being as much (or more) of an impetus to read and concentrate on a particular thing as curiosity. In my experience, it was a bit of both. My explorations into games, puzzles, and reading may have started from boredom--"There's nothing to do, mom!" ... "Why don't you put together that puzzle you brought with you (or read that book [those were the days before even VCRs])--but once I got going, curiosity took over. At any rate, I think boredom may very well be important. [continued next comment; site limits number of characters per comment]
Anti-Dada said…

I've made a note of the books you recommended. I'm particularly interested in Wolf's book about reading and the brain. I don't know whether it is intuition or information that has become detached from its source, but what you wrote of symbolic communication fits with my understanding of learning. There's been some hubbub in the past (Chomsky and others) that symbolic thinking and communication is a naturally occurring phenomena. I know, though, from what I've read of neuroscience, that our neural development is akin to stem cell growth--it takes form based on repetitive experiences (patterns) and those well-worn synaptic pathways have a causal link to thought and, thus, communication. Creativity, in that sense, is "wired" through an abundance of experiences which necessarily need to be "positive." It's a fundamental truth that that which harms us is that which we avoid and that which creates well-being or satisfaction or fulfillment or happiness (whatever you want to call it) is that which we pursue. The same would hold true to attention span, I would think. If reading long passages, developing greater complexity through attentiveness (and thus greater understanding) becomes fulfilling in some way then the impetus to return to such endeavors will not only be likely but will be actively pursued -- and possibly, more consciously understood. The latter is what particularly interests me: Once a person becomes aware that their activity patterns, their likes and dislikes, have been embedded through experiences, how does that change what a person can or cannot do? Does consciousness of process allow a person to consider change? Once it is recognized discipline (practice, repetition of action) is a necessary ingredient in fostering significant change in perspective, practice, attentiveness, and even awareness, is it possible for a person to commit and dedicate themselves to a new way of living, of being, that has, in a sense, unknown outcomes (in terms of the experience of being)? What I'm writing about here is so far outside the realm of popular culture that I'm not sure many ever consider such things (of course, there are currently 7 billion people in the world so "few" may actually be hundreds of millions, even if scattered around the globe). I've written about the same thing in different ways previously (sometimes more coherently, sometimes less), but what you've written in your original piece and your reply provides more fuel for me. I will look into those books. From the way you described them, it seems that they could offer much more insight into what is happening within a person's thinking and within societal changes.
Anonymous said…
Not to ebook. Turning pages and leaving bookmarks is my thing.

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