How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 14, 2014

The student was angry. Why hadn’t I mentioned there was a shorter version of the book I assigned for this week’s class? After brashly announcing she had unearthed an earlier article by the author ("Same thing, right?"), she instructed me that anything said in a book could be reduced to an article. The rest is just padding.

For some years, the amount of reading we assign university students has been shrinking. A book a week is now at best four or five for the semester; volumes give way to chapters or articles. Our motivation is often a last-ditch attempt to get students to actually read what’s on the syllabus. Other factors include the spiraling cost of textbooks and copyright limitations on how much we may post digitally.

Replacing the whole with the part is sometimes a reasonable move. In that fateful course, few students actually worked through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. (In retrospect, I took solace that my peeved student had at least read Putnam’s shorter piece.) Yet in some fields—particularly in the humanities—original texts are not interchangeable with synopses or condensations. SparkNotes or even more scholarly versions don’t substitute for Paradise Lost, History of the Peloponnesian War, or Philosophical Investigations.

Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days? More fundamentally, are they studying the humanities, which are based on long-form reading?

There has been much talk of late about the humanities being in crisis. Undergraduates who once flocked to literature courses are now studying economics to prepare themselves for Wall Street. Graduate programs in the humanities are thinning out as students turn to "practical" advanced degrees with more certain employment prospects and, at least initially, higher salaries. The 2011 Freshman Survey from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that the top reason for attending college was "to be able to get a better job" (86 percent of respondents, up from 70 percent just five years earlier).

But there is another essential consideration affecting interest in humanistic inquiry: how we are doing our reading. I contend that the shift from reading in print to reading on digital devices is further reducing students’ pursuit of work in the humanities. Students (and the rest of us) have been reading on computers for many years. Besides searching for web pages, we’ve grown accustomed to reading journal articles online and mining documents in digital archives. However, with the coming of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones, reading styles underwent a sea change.

Amazon’s Kindle launched in late 2007. The Apple iPad (not initially hyped as a book platform—but tell that to millions of users today) made its debut in 2010. Screen resolution on mobile phones improved, and even those of us with imperfect eyesight can decipher The New York Times on our iPhones. With remarkable speed, publishers turned out e-books alongside printed ones. The revolution began with the way many people do leisure reading. (Adult fiction remains the best-selling category of e-books in both the United States and Britain.)

But increasingly, e-books are causing a pedagogical reboot. Administrators and instructors, working with kindergartners through graduate programs, are progressively encouraging students to read on digital screens. Offering the promise of convenience and reduced cost, publishers are the main impetus behind the migration from print to e-books, although academics are buying into the transition with little thought for educational consequences.

What’s the problem? Not all reading works well on digital screens.

For the past five years, I’ve been examining the pros and cons of reading on-screen versus in print. The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called "deep reading" is nearly always better done in print.

Readers themselves have a keen sense of what kind of reading is best suited for which medium. My survey research with university students in the United States, Germany, and Japan reveals that if cost were the same, about 90 percent (at least in my sample) prefer hard copy for schoolwork. If a text is long, 92 percent would choose hard copy. For shorter texts, it’s a toss-up.

Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking. Among American and Japanese subjects, 92 percent reported it was easiest to concentrate when reading in hard copy. (The figure for Germany was 98 percent.) In this country, 26 percent indicated they were likely to multitask while reading in print, compared with 85 percent when reading on-screen. Imagine wrestling with Finnegan’s Wake while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight. You get the point.

Several open-ended questions on my survey were particularly revelatory. I asked what people liked most (and least) about reading in each medium. Common responses for what students liked most about reading in print included "I can write on the pages and remember the material easier" and "it’s easier to focus." When asked what they liked least about reading on-screen, a number of Japanese students reported that it wasn’t "real reading," while respondents from all three countries complained that they "get distracted" or "don’t absorb as much."

My all-time favorite reply to the question "What is the one thing you like least about reading in print?" came from an American: "It takes me longer because I read more carefully." Isn’t careful reading what academe was designed to promote?

Which brings us back to the humanities.

Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing.

Teachers and scholars must look beyond today’s career-mindedness in talking about challenges to the humanities. We need to think more carefully about students’ mounting rejection of long-form reading, now intensified by digital technologies that further complicate our struggle to engage students in serious text-based inquiry.

Naomi S. Baron is a professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University. Her book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World will be published by Oxford University Press later this year.