It seems I’ve been reading a lot about reading lately. A recent article in the Chronicle has prompted several bloggers to consider what reading means in the 21st century. Will Richardson reflected on his own reading practices and what educators should be doing to foster online literacy. Sean Sharp thought about what online reading practices mean for online writing practices.
Mark Bauerline, the author of the Chronicle article, is not fan of the digital age. He is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure I will since at this point in my learning I am looking for arguments from the center. Plus, I think we can get a good sense of what he believes from his article in the Chronicle.
Here’s the crux of his argument in one sentence: “We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning.” Bauerline sees himself and others as the “stewards of literacy” who must protect students from themselves by providing them with rigorous reading experiences. (Even as I write that sentence, I’m picturing the student in one of Michael Wesch’s videos holding up a sign indicating that students simply don’t do the assigned reading.)
I have not found such a conspiracy in my own life. Web-based reading has expanded my practice rather than changing it. I continue to read books, both fiction and nonfiction, while like Richardson, I have transferred almost all my more temporal reading such as news and correspondence to the web. My “books” have changed a bit since I purchased my Kindle. But my practice is similar whether I’m reading an online text, a Kindle text, or an old-fashioned book. Particularly in terms of non-fiction, I always have a pencil in my hand. The Kindle and Diigo come with a digital pencil in the form of their highlighting and annotation tools. And, for Daniel Schon’s book that I just started reading last night, I’ve got a Ticonderoga along with a pack of sticky notes tucked into the front cover. I do find a growing preference for digital reading as it is easier to search my highlights and annotations. But there is something worthwhile in paging through an analog book, reviewing what I underlined or annotated. In the hunt for a particular quote, I often find other useful comments.
The pragmatist in me is looking for common ground in this conversation. Bauerlein points to it in his article when he quotes Jakob Neilsen, a Web researcher who has written extensively on web-based reading habits. Nielsen says,
I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let’s praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern-day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector. We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.
There is a place for multiple kinds of reading in multiple kind of formats and our job as educators is to help students practice with all those different types.