Digital Reading in the Liberal Arts–Deep or Distracted?

chrome-extension-reading-thumbWe hope to do several followups to our previous post on Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, diving into the details of individual essays and exploring the implications for digital pedagogy at Austin College. Web writing is, of course, intimately related to web reading, that is, reading on digital screens in a networked environment. As the texts we read increasingly migrate to and originate in digital formats, concerns have been raised about the effects on our reading habits and comprehension. Can the liberal arts ideal of “close” or “deep” reading of complex long-form texts be maintained? There is extensive literature and debate on the topic, but here I’ll just draw attention to a couple of recent points of reflection.

First is this article, “Distracted Reading in the Digital Age,” which reports on conversations at Vassar College around the topic of reading practices and digital texts. Faculty forums and discussions have led to observations about shifting student reading practices and in particular the struggles of students to read intricate texts that require sustained focus and attentiveness. Some professors suspect that “hyper-digital culture” and the lure of frequent interruptions and multitasking is making it more difficult for students to concentrate and read effectively. For example, in one forum colleagues in history and English comment that

Since both of us teach rich, dense historical materials that require long stretches of concentration, we began to wonder whether the students’ unresponsiveness to assigned reading was just coincidence—classes have personalities—or whether we were witnessing some larger shift in the reading habits of our undergraduates, perhaps one brought on by their digital habits.

Faculty have been led to reflect more intentionally on the implications for teaching and learning: if student reading habits and competencies are shifting, how must pedagogies be adapted and realigned? What new strategies are needed to encourage active and effective reading of challenging texts? The article describes several responses to the situation, and suggests that there are ways of using the very technologies seen as “distracting” to actually increase student engagement with texts. One strategy for doing so is “digital annotation,” a theme that we have visited before on this blog. Classics professor Bert Lott describes using the digital annotation platform Annotation Studio in his classes:

“I require students to examine the text before and after class,” says Lott. “They write annotations about grammar, syntax, and lexicography and compose interpretive comments. Strands of conversation emerge between students as they do it.” Lott says there are many benefits of this approach, in addition to encouraging students to more deeply examine the text. “Having students write down their grammar questions carefully and ask them before class adds elements of the ‘flipped classroom,’ ” he says. “It allows us to get those technical questions answered outside of class, so the expectations for what they know in class are higher. It allows them to formulate their thoughts better and to participate more fully in class discussion because they have thought through some of their ideas beforehand.

Lott goes on to make some more general observations about how professors should approach reading and technology:

Seeing what such technologies can bring to the classroom, Lott says he’s “not entirely sympathetic to the notion that distracted reading and devices are wholly bad, that our job should be to protect the classroom as a space for only the old kind of reading. It’s much more complex than that.” “I think this is going to be the way in which students are going to engage and get information. Technologically enhanced reading can have huge benefits to education and scholarship. We’re just not sure what they are or we’re not entirely convinced of them yet,” he says. “This is one way for my students and me to practice what it means to read texts in the form they will undoubtedly read them as their lives move on.”

The theme of attentiveness and reading is also taken up in a recent presentation by Alan Jacobs of Baylor University entitled “The Attentive Reader.”  Jacobs is a distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor and a leading voice on textuality and technology. His Text Patterns blog at the New Atlantis is a valuable resource on this topic; he is also the author of, among other books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Building upon Katherine Hayles’s distinction of hyper attention and deep attention, Jacobs proposes that any serious analysis of how we read must take into account distinctive modes and environments of attention and the various technologies that operate within them. Modes of attention take in relatively more or less of the ambient environment. All modes of attention are contextually valuable; for example, when driving a car it is better to be hyper-attentive, continually scanning a wide range of stimuli and phenomena, than to be narrowly focused on only one sensory input. Managing a digital life of frequent notifications and task-switching is also a form of hyper-attentiveness. Yet it remains incumbent for liberal arts colleges “to be distinctly hospitable to focused attention,” which they can only do “if they become more thoughtfully intentional about environments and devices.”

Jacobs has also promoted annotation and commentary as a positive affordance of digital technologies and a means of prompting greater attentiveness to and engagement with texts. Among his “79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation,” he proposes that

  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative.

In other words, the digitization and networking of texts is good because it invites greater levels of commentary and annotation on those texts (“deep reading”), which is at the same time, for Jacobs, the preferred form for learning how to write well. Taking up the challenge of the disputatio, Andrew Piper of McGill University further elaborates the pedagogical implications of the “annotated web:”

There is a vibrant movement afoot to remake the web as a massive space of commentary. The annotated web, as it’s called, has the aim of transforming our writing spaces from linked planes to layered marginalia ….

Missing from these models is pedagogy. The annotated web gives us one example of how to remake the technology of writing to better accommodate responsiveness. It’s a profound first step, one that will by no means be universally embraced (which should give us some idea of how significant it is).

But we do not yet have a way of teaching this to new (or old) writers. Follow the curricular pathways from the lockered hallways of elementary school to the bleak cubicles of higher education and you will still see the blank piece of paper or its electronic double as the primary writing surface. The self-containment of expression is everywhere. It is no wonder that these writers fail to comment well.

It’s all well and good to say commentary is back. It’s another to truly re-imagine how a second grader or college student learns to write. What if we taught commentary instead of expression, not just for beginning writers, but right on through university and the PhD? What if we trained people to build and create in the annotated web instead of on pristine planes of remediated paper? Now that would be different.

Whether or not one is in full agreement that commentary is “the central scholarly genre,” the discussion raises intriguing questions and opportunities for reflection about digital textuality. Do you have observations from the classroom about student reading and writing in the digital age? Let us know your comments.

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