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.