Getting a Read on Reading

August 8th, 2012

Both of the daily newsletters I get from the Chronicle of Higher Ed  (“Academe Today” and “Wired Campus”) featured the same piece this morning: “The Digital World Demands a New Mode of Reading.” The title is unfortunate, especially in its use of the singular. More than anything, the article is about the proliferation of modes of reading (and modes in multiple senses: different formats, different kinds of attention, different processes, even different versions, in one person, of what one interviewee calls the “reading self”).

Though whole books are mentioned (The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain), the article is wholly anecdotal, and the anecdotes all contribute to the sense of multiplicity, variety, and (for me, at least) confusion. Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading, reads voraciously and omnivorously but seems to do nothing else. (One irony is that the one datum in the article that gets the most thorough explanation is who Channing Tatum is. Why? Because Jacobs has no idea, what with his reading regimen that proscribes all TV and movies.) Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, rereads Hesse’s Magister Ludi to see if she can discover her “older reading self.” (She can, she says, but why she would conduct this experiment by rereading — never the same as the first encounter — and choosing to read a book in translation [or in another language] is a puzzle.)

There are certainly plenty of books and articles mourning the changes to reading brought on by the rise of the internet. Sven Birkets’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, originally published in 1994, is probably the granddaddy. But they tend to be (very) personal takes on the issue that hardly tell us what is really happening to us and our students. We can have our suspicions and personal opinions, our pulse-takings and personal experiences, but what do we really know? What, as educators, have we ever really known about what happens when a chapter is assigned and students either get it (whatever “it” is) or they don’t? Is that even the right way to frame what we should expect to see happen?

The questions are important because of the move to what you might call guided auto-didacticism, particularly via MOOCs and online extension courses that eschew the sustained interaction of established online instruction (too labor intensive and costly, presumably) for a trading of content and exams. If one mode of learning on the rise is the 21st-century version of the correspondence course, where material is made available and then machine-scored exams determine whether the student “gets it,” we had better be a good deal clearer than we are about what “getting it” amounts to. That would mean being much clearer about the cognitive processing involved as well as the validity of assessments used — and much more concerned about that than the putative contraction of attention spans and increase in impatience and distractibility.

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