Rather than trying to tackle the question of which e-book device is best for which reader, I want to address the presence of the Kindle™ in the academic classroom. I’m focusing on the Kindle for two reasons: 1) I have one, so I’m familiar with its benefits and limitations personally, and 2) it is the most common e-reader is use right now, though to be certain, as other companies enter the fray in the coming months, this might well change. At the 2010 CES show in Las Vegas last month, dozens of new devices were debuted, and of course, we can’t overlook the newly unveiled iPad™. As e-book devices begin to enter the marketplace alongside the Kindle, the Nook™, and the Sony e-reader, chances are it is only a matter of time before we will see them in college classrooms. In fact, I had my first Kindler in class just last month! In what follows, I’ll try to address some of the pros and cons of trying to use the Kindle for coursework in the literary classroom.
Cost: Once one has the Kindle (see Cons), many books are significantly less expensive than the campus bookstore. If you teach pre-1922 literature, students can get many books for free or next to nothing. Even if you teach 20th or 21st century materials, the books, if they are available, can be more affordable, especially if the books aren’t available in paperback or used copies.
Dictionary: Students have a dictionary at their fingertips, literally, so there is no excuse for not looking up “ineluctable” or “adiaphane” or other unfamiliar words. The dictionary is not inexhaustible (particularly if one if reading Ulysses, for example), but it’s just a click or two away at all times. If I can look up a word with the push of a button, I am much more likely to do so.
Annotations & Underlining: Another click or two, and students can highlight passages, bookmark pages, and make notes about particular passages. These are not immediately visible to the eye, but they are easily accessible and can be transferred onto a personal computer or printed out. Extra bonus: no messy underlines/highlights/marginalia (though if like me, you happen to take pride in the marking of a text, this could also be a disadvantage).
Portability: This is less of an issue in an English class where one might only have to carry a novel at a time. Of course, this depends on what the novel is: my kindle edition of Ulysses is easier to carry around than a print edition (and I don’t need to worry about the pages falling out!), but there is something to be said not only for the size and weight of the device but also for the possibility of having your digital library always with you at any given time. You never know when you’ll need to look up a quote from Ulysses . . . E-books might be more of an advantage for courses with larger (or heavier) texts or for study-travel courses where luggage space and weight is at a premium.
Search Function: How many times have you tried to find a specific reference in a text only to page around for what seems like hours unable to locate the page? The search function eliminates that problem. Simply type a keyword or phrase and Voila! This function can also come in handy when tracking patterns in a text.
Cost: The price of the e-book is, to my mind, one of the biggest obstacles preventing widespread use. The Kindle price has dropped significantly, but even so, the standard Kindle is $259 and the Kindle DX is $489. That’s a major investment for most college students. Heck, it’s a major investment for many junior faculty! In addition to the price of the device itself, most readers will want to purchase a cover, which will cost another $30-$50 (though one could spend upwards of $100 or more for fancy covers). And then there are the books. As I mentioned above, there are many free books available for the Kindle, but most copyrighted texts will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 each. That can add up quickly.
No Pages: This probably seems obvious, but there are no pages in an e-book. Or rather, the entire book is one long page. This difference has some important consequences for me as a scholar and a teacher. Because there are no pages, I cannot just flip through a text. If I am reading the text in its entirety, this doesn’t matter to me because I want to read straight through from beginning to end. But if I am reviewing a text, trying to prepare for class, writing an exam, or trying to make other kinds of cross-textual connections, I need a print edition. I rely heavily on visual cues and pagination in all of these contexts. On a Kindle, unless you already know the location number of a particular passage or you have a keyword to search, you are stuck paging through the book rather slowly. This can be especially problematic for longer texts if the Kindle edition lacks a linked table of contents, which allows you to skip from one chapter to another.
Location Numbers: A Kindle text, because readers can adjust font sizing, does not come equipped with page numbers. At All. Instead it uses “location numbers” as reference points throughout the text. These aren’t a problem if the entire class is using a Kindle. They are a problem if most of the class if using the same print edition and only a few students are using an e-book. It could also pose a problem with citation since MLA, Chicago, APA, and other style manuals have not yet incorporated the e-book into their guidelines. If students read their texts on an e-reader, how will they cite the text in their papers? Will you accept location numbers? Or will you require them to consult a print edition and get the page numbers? Or will you have a different policy?
Marginalia (or Lack Thereof): A colleague of mine at another university recently complained about students wanting to use Kindles in his classroom. When I asked why he was so adamantly against the idea, he explained that because he teaches older literary texts, he encourages students to heavily annotate their texts, and note taking can be difficult on the Kindle. In addition, notes aren’t immediately visible (though you can tell that there is an annotation; you just can’t see what it is).
Edition Quality: This is not an issue for copyrighted texts, but it can be a problem for those texts that are in public domain. Just as there are many different editions of Moby Dick available from Amazon, there are also over 100 editions available for the Kindle. Most of these cost less than $3.00, and many of them are free (there is, however, an outlier that costs almost $40!). With so many different editions available, how are students to choose? What kind of editorial apparatus will they encounter, if they encounter one at all? And how reliable will their edition be? E-book editions of literary texts might just be the latest final frontier of textual studies, but most undergraduate students aren’t aware of such textual issues. Further, if you require students to purchase a specific print edition, will you allow Kindlers to use a different version of the text if that edition is not available as an e-book?
All of that said, the student who Kindled his way through my intercession class didn’t encounter any difficulties. The course, which was only 4 weeks long, did not require a research paper, so citation was not an issue, and of the public-domain texts that I assigned, he selected editions that were in line with the print versions I specified. He saved a few dollars on books, but there are inexpensive used copies of many of the texts available online, so the difference was probably around $10-$20. $10-$20 in savings is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as my mother likes to say, but it is less of a savings than I might have expected.
Have you used a Kindle (or other e-book device) in the classroom, or have you had students use them? How did it go? Do you have policies for e-books either encouraging or discouraging their use? Comments and experiences welcome!
[Photo by Flickr user richardmasoner and licensed through Creative Commons.]