Dispatches | September 04, 2013

Today’s Blog Post come from Zach Tarvin. 

We’re moving toward the end of 2013. As readers, as writers, let’s submit a modest proposal for the discussion of both writing and the humanities in the new year: The moment someone uses “print culture” or “digital culture” as a term of academic classism, we all pummel that person in the face with the heaviest book we own.

It’s negative reinforcement, this pummeling. Necessary reinforcement to end, finally, what moves, acts, and sounds like a subset of a larger pissing contest in both the humanities as well as wider academia: What role does technology play?

That’s a question larger and more multifaceted than is ordinarily fair to pose. All the same, I raise it as a way of approaching what I’ve observed to be two instances of the same would-be problem that has scholars, professors, and students alike brandishing pitchforks and torches.

We’ve simultaneously begun pondering in what capacity technology can expand our understanding of our fields while maintaining certain claims and guidelines for legitimacy that disregard the value of text in favor of the form and manner of delivery. On one hand we are expounding how “helpful” “live” video streams of classrooms might be to online-only students in fast-tracked degree programs, but at the same time, publication in an online journal somehow holds less weight than if the piece had appeared in a print publication.

Since entering an MFA program two years ago, I’ve earned a reputation for the guy who “hates print,” a reputation earned since much of my classwork and academic preparation has shifted to my iPad. When I can avoid having to carry more than the iPad, I do. Being a student of a subject like creative writing gives you a lot of options in terms of where you purchase the novels or collections or anthologies you’ll be studying that semester. Since my second semester, I’ve tried to go for the eBook versions of required texts. Ergo “Zach doesn’t do print.”

The deeply problematic part of that accusation is that it implies that I don’t like books, when really the opposite is true. I adore books. I love them. I have a better relationship with books than I have with most human beings. Stories have defined me, have shaped my sense of identity. Were they in print? A lot, yes. But also on cassette, on CD, in performance spaces, in my childhood bedroom. Print is not the definitive form for story.

In so many ways, the print-faithful have almost become the annoying new parents of the literary community. Whip out an eReader in a casual setting and suddenly they’re all over you about “Oh, but I would miss the smell of my books. I’d miss the experience!” faster than a group of young parents on a coffee date can whip out the baby pictures.

Maybe people actually like sniffing their books. I’m anosmic, so I wouldn’t know. I do know, however, that if you’re really worried about the “experience” being any different, you’re ignoring the fact that the very essence of this bound thing you hold to be so dear is just text.

Where does that leave Braille editions? Audiobooks? We’ve become too bound up in book as object versus book as work or text. An appreciation of text—of writing, of story—is what we’re really after, right? So what does it matter if it’s in print or not? Infinite Jest is still Infinite Jest. Mrs. Dalloway is still Mrs. Dalloway. We can argue author intent, but that becomes fallacy.

Lately I’ve discovered that you can gauge whether or not someone actually appreciates writing or is reading a book for the vain act of being seen reading the book, their attitude toward eBooks can say a lot. Would-be luddites whine and scream when they can’t have their covers or spines displayed where dinner party guests can “Ooh,” and “Aah,” and cock an eyebrow. If that’s where the value placement is laid, what’s the point? It’s not as though a book sitting on your shelf making you look erudite is actually enriching you at all.

“But John Waters said not to sleep with anyone that didn’t own books!” Is your end-game here to sleep with the same kind of people John Waters would sleep with? My gut feeling says that’s not who you think it is.

It’s too easy to make this argument and have everything I say be dismissed by a professor on the basis that I’m a Millennial and therefore obsessed with my gadgets to the point that they can’t ever be more than six inches away from me or I’ll die. This has happened more times than I’d like to disclose. If it’s true, though, I suppose that every person over the age of fifty also takes Viagra and/or Cialis every day, eats promptly at half past four, enjoys Shuffleboard, and never misses “Matlock”. Stereotypes and generalizations suck, don’t they?

In reality, I came to publishing through a print background. My earliest endeavors were as a layout editor for a high school newspaper and literary journal. Typesetting. In college, I managed the website for Mid-American Review, where I also read fiction submissions and helped do some typesetting. I love print. Sometimes, though, it’s more convenient to go to class with a single iPad with all my textbooks than lug around a Norton anthology and a textbook on critical theory.

But some of what people say about eBooks in the classroom is valid. The page numbers aren’t always going to be the same; I can change font and text size on the fly, even someone reading on another iPad could have a different pagination. But the same is true for print books. Unless every student buys the exact same edition of a textbook, that’s bound to happen. Does that always happen in a literature course? No.

What eBook readers can do, though, is search. So my professor starts reading the section they’d like the class to focus on. I start typing into a search box. Boom, my reading app finds the selection in my current pagination and I can follow along. Is there a delay? Yes. I might miss a sentence or two from when my professor began reading, but no more than if I turned to the page and couldn’t find the paragraph we were starting in or if my edition had a different pagination. Maybe this way isn’t ideal, but then again, the formats we’re using in eBooks today are continuously developing. It’s not a stretch to say that the groups behind them (who are tech companies, publishers, independent authors, and designers) can’t engineer a more elegant solution.

This print superiority complex is largely posturing and inexperience. The vocal critics probably haven’t spent a lot of time reading on a (good, and this is an important qualifier) device. They’ve not realized you can annotate and note and highlight and bookmark. Maybe they bought a bad eBook. In digital, as in print, there are cheap, shoddy books. Shoddy design, shoddy text. Bad books are bad books, regardless of format.

But I think this problem actually goes a little deeper when it comes to academics. When we start examining this print vs. digital debate, we find a similar problem that both our academic fields as well as our institutions need to address simultaneously. What is most helpful and conducive for the students? Like me using my iPad, they’re going to make use of some form of technology anyway.

When I hear instructors—and I do, as it happens—bemoaning and retching over the presence of a laptop in their classroom, it’s often followed by one of three telling statements: they’re is worried that the students will be slacking off, that the students won’t absorb anything, or that their professorial preparation and research will be put on trial.

The first two excuses are decoys. Students can always slack off. To argue that a student reading off a screen will absorb less is funny, because we all start our day off with the newspaper. Email? That’s a fad. Facebook? The only way I like to read faces is when they’re bound between two pieces of paperboard!

But this fear that their preparation will come under attack, that’s an interesting tell. In the humanities, we’re not as frequently exposed to the cut-throat world of peer review as our colleagues in the sciences. Sure, writing a paper, a book, or a lecture only to have it immediately discredited and spat upon by another member of the community sucks, but that’s sort of the pursuit we decided to chase. Knowledge isn’t fixed.

Moreover, if this is fear is a reaction to the presence of a computer in the classroom, what does that say about the instructor’s preparation? To me, it implies that there’s probably been a series of corrections before. If that’s the case, why is the professor continuing to teach a factual error? If it isn’t error, but a student has found or researched a valid counterpoint, what is the danger in having it introduced in the classroom?

“But computers are a distraction! They’re not helping students be more productive necessarily. The studies show—” the studies show you’re spending too much time trying to measure something scientifically rather than use what’s at our fingertips, where appropriate, to further our craft and field of study. When it comes to learning, going for the big data approach a lot of people mistakenly refer to as the digital humanities assumes a false idea of what a lot of technology is, how it works, and what it’s good for.

I was a solid A student through most of my high school and undergraduate career. Do you know what I did in those big lecture classes I was required to take? I sat in the back of the room, writing. I’d kill for that level of productivity in my MFA. Being able to keep writing in the back of my mind as I took notes, as a professor explained something that was already in the reading taught me to think about how I formed sentences, how I paced myself. But then, to all intents and purposes, I was a distracted student. Under most circumstances, that’s what the data would say.

We forget that writing is itself a technology. Literacy is a technology. There is a functional difference between bringing a computer or a tablet or an eReader into the classroom to help a student and a devaluation of instructional quality by making all professors adjuncts and making them stream recorded lectures to 200 students at a time.

Technology is not inherently good or bad. Applications may help or hinder, but there’s no black and white here. If anything, technology has more gray area than the humanities does.

And such a sad pigeon holing of “print culture” or “digital culture” creates a divide in which a writer is basically expected to conform to one, not the other. While more and more literary journals are moving to creating eBook editions of their issues, the print publication bias against the online publication bias still exists. In allowing such a gap, we’re strangling the potential of a bunch of writers who are really working in the only real space that exists: text.

Sure, we can talk permanence and privilege and access until we’re blue in the face—and in the humanities, that’s what we love to do—but almost every one of those objections has an immediate flaw at which point it falls apart.

Text is still text. Novels and collections and chapbooks and novellas and manuscripts and collected works are not necessarily always books just as books aren’t always books at all, but might be photo albums or places you hide your flask of whiskey.

So to arms! And at the first mention of print or digital culture, remember the pummeling mantra: “LITERARY. CULTURE.”

ZachTarvinZach Tarvin is a freelance writer and editor. He is an editor at Oyez Review and an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

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