Monday, January 22, 2007

A Book in the Hand...

Today Will Richardson posted a reference to an article by Thomas Washington, a librarian in the Washington, D.C. area, in which the author expressed concern about the impact that techonology-based information access is having on student reading habits. "We teach students," says Washington, "how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material. Students are still checking out the standard research fare — the Thomas Jefferson biography, the volume of literary criticism on Jane Austen — but few read it. The library checks the books back in a day later, after the students have extracted the information vitals — usually an excerpt or two to satisfy the requirement that a certain number of works be cited in their papers." He goes on to tell some stories about other interactions he's had with students for whom curling up with a good book is not high on their list of personal pleasures.

I've got to say that I share his concerns. I remember pretty clearly one afternoon last fall when I was walking from my end of the campus to an afterschool meeting at the junior school at the other end. I passed students playing cards. I passed students listening to iPods. I passed students working on laptops. I passed students eating snacks and playing frisbee and sitting around and talking story. I remember being somewhat surprised, and not a little gratified, when I turned the corner by the Wo Center and saw a girl (and it would have to be a girl) sitting by herself under a tree, deeply engrossed in reading a book. The image stuck with me because it was, because it has become, something of an anomaly.

I'm starting to notice the same drift in my own life and work. I've been an obsessive reader all my life. Even in years when my life has been relatively busy I've been able to find the time to read between fifty and a hundred books a year, not counting the magazines and newspapers and student papers and school-related professional development materials and the like. But in the last six months, as I've been spending progressively more time in Blogworld, I'm seeing my reading time—at least as I've traditionally thought of it—diminishing. I'm doing a lot more scanning, or grazing, and I'm finding that very stimulating in certain ways. I'm certainly doing a LOT more writing, a lot more regularly, than I have done at any other comparable period in my life. And yet there's something that I value that feels like it is slipping away.

Reading words on a screen is not the same as reading a book. It's not the same texturally, it's not the same physiologically, it's not the same in terms of its inner dynamics, the architecture of the inner space the activity allows or encourages me to inhabit. Will, in his comment on another post, says "...books, ultimately, are words and ideas, not paper and bindings. Just because something is in digital form doesn’t make it any less a book, does it? Sure the form factor is different, and maybe the experience feels different to those of us who have grown up with paper and bindings. But I have to tell you, I love lying in bed at night reading on my Tablet PC, scrolling pages, marking up the text. If I could get more books in digital form, I would read more of them on my computer. Again, I think the jury is out as to whether this direction is good or bad…it’s just different."

I'm not sure I agree. I agree that the jury is out, but I'm not sure it's "just" different. It's different in a way that has implications and consequences, some of which may in fact turn out to be good, or bad. On Saturdays during January and February I often do admissions interviews for students applying to my school. One question I like to ask is "Do you like to read?" Responses fall into three broad categories. There is a very small percentage of students who say yes, and then, when I ask them to recommend a book to me, are able to speak with some enthusiasm and authority about what they recall about what they have read. There is a somewhat larger group of students, who, knowing that they are in an admissions interview, are tactically savvy enough to say, "Oh, absolutely," but who then prove to be unable to come up with a coherent sentence about any particular book. The largest group, and it grows larger each year, is made up of students who say either "No, I don't like to read, but (sigh) I will if I have to," or "I only like to read certain kinds of books." Take Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket out to the picture, and they're essentially non-readers. Or, more accurately, they're merely functional readers. They may be, and and in most cases probably are, technologically adept. They're good at text messaging and instant messaging and Googling and playing video games. They know how to access information. They graze, grab what they need to get an assignment done, and then move on. But their mental lives, as far as I can see, are about a mile wide and about an inch deep.

"What gets lost," says Washington, "is a careful reading of the material." That phrase, "a careful reading," gestures at a whole set of conditions: a time, a place, a text worthy of sustained attention, a reader with a certain set of habits of mind more or less like the ones I was trying to spell out yesterday. I'm nearly sixty years old, I've been a reader all my life, and I find that under the influence of the Web 2.0 I am reading more widely and less deeply than I used to. At least I am in a position to reflect on what I might be missing and make appropriate adjustments, seek out a balance. But I'm worried about the kids who are never going to know what it is that they missed out on.


bluedevil said...

I was thinking this recently while traveling for business through NY and DC, though with respect to adults as much as students. ten years ago on trains (including the NY subways) and planes (and in airports, shuttle buses, all the additional joyous transit time that gets added on both ends of any flight) anyone not simply staring into space was looking at a newspaper or a magazine, if not a book. only true road warrior types or those clearly under a deadline had hauled out their bulky laptops to work, especially once in the air. while the reading was often the adult equivalent of lemony snicket (airport paperbacks) it was often a pleasure to see the range of books that people had with them, a glimpse into their current interests and often into the broader zeitgeist

this past week I was struck by how much this has changed. ipods, wi-fi laptops, cell phones and handheld email (the ubiquitous blackberry) have translated directly to huge numbers of adjacent people all plugged into and/or staring at tiny screens (while usually within eyeshot of several huge screens, as well). far fewer travelers, on 4 flights over 3 days, were reading books or even magazines. an airplane is for me one of the few times and places where I know I can find a block of uninterrupted time to get deeply into a book, so I savor it, especially since my general reading patterns have been subject to the same greater breadth / lesser depth as you describe. most of the people I saw were too old to have grown up with this technology or these habits, but reading like most healthy and sustaining practices is much easier to forsake than to develop. in theory, they at least should know what they were missing out on -- but the pattern is clear

at the risk of raising a more controversial topic, why would it have to be a girl?

Bruce Schauble said...

Fact of life. There's been a ton of discussion about this in educational circles in the last few years—the whys, the wherefores, the problem and its potential solutions, but our culture tends to be unforgiving of bookish males. Macho and cool and hip are in. (They've been in for a very long time.) Sensitive and enthusiastic and old school (analog vs digital, poetry vs rap, respect vs trash talk) are out. Most teenage boys don't like to read, and the ones that do certainly don't want to be seen doing so in public. It's a brave young man indeed who is going to be seen reading a novel while waiting to be picked up after school.

Similar implicit cultural constraints govern such things as class participation and any homework that might be seen by anyone but the teacher. I've got male students who write and think incredibly well who will not under any circumstances venture a word in class. It's just too much of a risk to be seen by their peers to be taking an interest.

bluedevil said...

fair enough: does that suggest a different approach to teaching (and critical thinking) is required to reach boys rather than girls? you have sons - did you see that as they grew up, or is it a more recent phenomenon?

Bruce Schauble said...

I think it's been a problem to some degree for a long as I've been teaching (since 1969), but it's definitely been getting worse, not just in the schools, but everywhere. Peer pressure is nothing new, and teenagers have always been more interested in meeting the expectations of their friends than in carving out strong individual identities that put them at risk. (I'm overgeneralizing here: there are always some kids around with strong personalities and the kind of internal or external (family) support systems that allow them to go their own way. What's changed is the pattern of behavioral expectations, or perhaps, the range of behavioral expectations. Guys are supposed to be tough, to be cool, to be self-contained. They're not supposed to be brainy or to take any visible pleasure in school. It's interesting that the words of choice by which guys routinely dis each other-fag, pussy, geek, nerd-haven't changed all that much over the last ten or twenty years. The first two challenge one's toughness by attacking one's sexuality, the second by attacking one's tendency toward "book larning."

I don't think there's a real difference in learning styles between males and females, but I think there's a difference in what they're permitted to manifest. I don't teach males differently than I teach females, but I do find I have to relate to them differently; although the content of the lessons and the nature of the activities might be the same, the kinds of interactions they have over the material, with each other and with me, is decidedly different.

This morning I crossed the street at the same time as a former (male) student. We arrived at the crosswalk at the same time, he said hello, there was a brief moment of awkwardness of the kind you often have in an elevator ("Should I start a conversation that's going to end when he gets off on the next floor, or should we just stand here like dummies?") and he then quickly smoothed it over by making a remark about the Patriots' loss to the Colts, and we chatted away quite happily as we crossed the street and headed onto the campus. He made the (correct) assumption that I had watched the game (what self-respecting American male would have missed it?) and that this would be an acceptable topic of passing conversation, along the lines of "How 'bout those Mets?" It goes without saying that if it had been a girl crossing the street with me that she would not have been likely to initiate that particular conversation. The range of permissible topics would actually have been much greater. A girl in all likelihood would have asked me a question about how my week was going or how I am doing today, which would have been a cue for me to talk about myself, and then return the question so she could talk about her self.

So yeah, there's some differences there. About which volumes have been and are being written. What are we doing to our young men? How can we create an environment that makes it okay for them to be engaged and smart and literate AND cool? It's a big challenge for educators, and a big challenge for America as a nation.