How E-Reading Threatens the Humanities!

Dear Commons Community,

Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University, has an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, commenting on reading printed text versus reading with an e-reader. Provocatively titled, “How E-Reading Threatens the Humanities”, Baron makes the case that certain types of reading such as “deep reading” which is necessary for philosophy, literature, and history is better done using print mainly because there is less distraction as might be the case with an electronic device. Here is an excerpt:

“…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.

…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.”

Baron goes on to cite a survey she conducted of college student preferences:

“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.”

Baron provides interesting commentary but I am not sure that we are not in a transition period of people adjusting to electronic reading over print. I read both hard copy and electronically although I tend to prefer print for certain material.



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