Home » Ebooks in Education » How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities

How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities

17 July 2014

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Ebooks in Education

63 Comments to “How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities”

  1. Most students weren’t reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein thirty years ago either. LOL

  2. “Imagine wrestling with Finnegan’s Wake while simultaneously juggling Facebook and booking a vacation flight. You get the point.”

    Everything that I have heard about Finnegan’s Wake tells me that if e-reading killed it, it wouldn’t be a great loss to humanity. I made it through Ulyesses, but I am told that’s easy compared to F.W.

    Anyway, this whole paper vs screen argument is a tired one. People will adapt to new media, as they always have. In a generation or two, reading on paper may be as quaint as using a slide rule. But, just as there are still engineers and scientists in the post-slide rule world, there will be readers, writers and scholars in the post-paper book world.

    • Finnegan’s Wake is a total loss.

      • Actually, I think e-reading would help Finnegan’s Wake, if you put in all the annotation books as links.

        Of course, it would then be a lot like TV Tropes, but the funny bits might be more obviously funny.

        • Okay – true confession. I went back to University in my thirties following a divorce and attacked it with a passion and a deep genuine desire to learn. Hell, I read Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT twice before we talked about it in class – and it turned out I was the only student in the class who had read more than the beginning of Chapter One.

          I was obsessed.

          I read Old English, Middle English, and run-of-the-mill-this-ain’t-Coronation-Street English. I read Russian literature and I read Goethe and Neitzsche and anything else I could get my hands on – and I am afraid I still think that James Joyce must have been nuttier than batshit the day that he sat down and thought to himself – mmm, maybe if I try to write a novel in stream-of-consciousness style I’ll have those toffs and snobs eating out of my hand for years to come.

          Finnegan’s Wake.

          My God, I have found more sense in the ramblings of drunken revivalist speakers-in-tongue.

          E-reading isn’t killing the humanities.

          HUMANITY has already accomplished that deed about three seasons of Big Brother ago, give or take a couple of episodes of Honey Boo-Boo.

  3. There will still be readers if reading is nurtured and valued. That comes from earlier education than college, I believe, and not necessarily from the delivery system. We adapt to technology, as some others have commented. And I know several people who read more now that e-readers make it a bit handier. Also, you won’t break your nose when you fall asleep reading Harry Potter or War and Peace on your Kindle.

    • Or United States Federal Civil Procedure.

    • Ereaders are also a great boon to people with handicaps that prevent them from holding heavy books. Arthritic hands, for instance.

      • I love my e-reader because my eyes are 55 years old. I’ve got paperbacks on my bookshelves that I just can’t read anymore. God bless the adjustable font.

        And don’t get me started talking about how much actual bookshelf space my e-reader is saving me. I was putting my carpenter’s grandkids through University.

  4. I’m still trying to equate e-books with students turning to practical advanced degrees to secure a decent, stable job. Then there’s the statement about convenience hurting the humanities. I don’t remember iPads and Kindles back 40 or 50 years ago when students flocked to the Cliff Notes version of a humanity to make up for the fact they never read the book due the next day for discussion and report. It does not matter if the written word exists in print or digital format, either it is read or it is not. Placing blame on a certain medium of delivery is irresponsible and shows the bias of the article author.

    • And let’s not forget Classic Comics.

    • Yup.

      “Undergraduates who once flocked to literature courses are now studying economics to prepare themselves for Wall Street.”

      That’s because today’s college degree is worth about as much as the high school diploma of 40 years ago. Some folks might want to get a job that allows them the leisure to read your precious literary fiction. Factory work doesn’t leave much time, energy, or inclination.

      And by the way, only professors at universities make a living wage in your scheme. Professor.

  5. Self-reported perceptions of vague metrics such as “easier to concentrate” -> crap data.

    That said, making annotations sucks on ereaders.

  6. In high school, about a decade ago, I recall finding that the translation of Crime and Punishment selected by my teacher was also on Project Gutenberg. I already had the print copy at that point, but I used the e-version to help me write the paper. It was so much easier to find my quotes, and then I could check the chapter and context to more easily find the page for referencing in the print book.

    And in high school (and college), I read more than a few things from Project Gutenberg, on my computer screen. I work on the computer screen, and my job (editing) requires me to read critically.

    Some things are easier to see on paper, sure, but some things are easier to see on screen. It’s a trade-off.

    If distraction is an issue, there are dedicated e-readers. (I own one.) There are also programs that will cut your computer from Internet, etc., for a set period of time. I don’t use those, but I do make a healthy use of timers to help me get on-track on days when I’m distracted.

    The focusing methods aren’t entirely the same between paper and computer, but don’t mistake that for focus and dedicated reading being impossible on a computer, or distraction necessarily being a by-product of reading on computer.

    Perhaps the students just haven’t been taught about how to stay on-task while working on computer. Did the author’s questions consider that?

    When I was in university (within the past decade), I was: a full-time honor roll student, working 2 part-time jobs plus freelancing (on computer), and also a moderator in an online game with hundreds of thousands of players and <1% of them moderators, to the point that many players had never even seen a moderator in-game before (making it effectively another part-time job).

    My IQ isn't that high. I just know how to focus and apply myself.

    • Teach people how to turn notifications off & how to take notes electronically & you’ve solved 2 of the major complaints. Why is it that people complain but never think of simple solutions which the technology already provide?

      Or possibly stop giving students books to read which they find difficult and few remember fondly years later?

    • “I just know how to focus and apply myself.”

      This has a greater effect on your grade than inherent genius and talent.

      And I thought colleges had dumped the humanities in favor of gender studies, whiteness studies, and the latest -isms.

  7. Students get angry for all sorts of reasons, including 8:00am is too early for a class. I don’t know how much an anecdote about an angry student adds to the conversation.

    I remember when parents used to be worried that kids would forget their times tables when handheld calculators first came out.

    • I remember when parents used to be worried that kids would forget their times tables when handheld calculators first came out.

      And they were right. How many people these days can perform basic math in their heads? Even just well enough to realize that the result their calculator gave them can’t possibly be correct?

      • It hasn’t seemed to be a problem for anyone I know, nor anyone I interact with with any frequency. The only time I see people having trouble are when they’re trying to compute advanced trigonometry or calculus, and quite frankly that’s what calculators were invented for.

      • The calculator isn’t the cause of that, though. Bad teaching is.

        • I’m afraid I’d argue that one. I recollected seeing a grown woman stumped over figuring 25% of $10.00.

          “I need a calculator,” she said. “I’m afraid I need a calculator.”

          I learned most of my mathematics playing cribbage with my grandparents and figuring the change when I was collecting on my paper route. That, and board games.

  8. One point she doesn’t make but is academically important from a purely logistical standpoint is how to do citations of a digital format. How do you denote the location of a quote? Does one use location (but isn’t that different according to which e-reader one uses)? Or chapter and hope the reader can track it down? Something more searchable?

    I think the digital format has immense potential for academic work, only we haven’t quite absorbed how to use it yet. The ability to highlight and make notes, search texts (I remember the painful days of my own grad school time, keeping track of everything on index cards and little bits of paper inserted into books to mark the passages for later use). These notes are immediately shareable and discussable, as well.

    That said, I am of the generation that still prefers to do “serious reading” in print. I always print out my manuscript drafts to edit. I just can’t seem to do the same job on digital formats.

    Students will figure out what works for them. If I had access to digital books in college and grad school, I think I would actually have read much, much more, because damn, those books were heavy! And there were only so many I could carry out of the library at once. 🙂

  9. She missed all the years I did heavy reading on a computer screen.

    The culture of teaching humanities has changed. Instead of blaming a bit of hardware, perhaps she should think a little deeper and look a little further in order to find the root of the problem.

  10. I agree that the problems in the humanities shouldn’t be blamed on the delivery system. It has more to do with the student’s mindset. The same student who used Cliff’s Notes instead of reading the novel and writing a paper about it will now download the paper from a researchpaper mill on the Internet.

    • Thus cutting out the homegrown commissioned papermill at his own college! Why do big papermill publishers hate indies so much!?

  11. We as a country have billed higher education as job training, and priced it accordingly. You can’t really complain when students, who pay exorbitant tuitions, flick to the subjects that’ll produce a better job.

    • And it has been the colleges themselves that have been pushing this meme the hardest. Now some of them are whining that folks were listening.

      • While I agree with your first sentence, what the administration of the institution does isn’t always to the approval of the faculty, i.e., the people who do the actual work. University administrations run their institutions more like a business than a place of learning these days. And what’s good for the university bottom line isn’t always good for education. I’m not surprised the author isn’t happy about the result.

        Please don’t take my statements as agreement with the author of the post. It isn’t. I’m not sympathetic to her position on digital reading, but I understand where she’s coming from since I work in academia myself. She loves her field and thinks it’s important for students. However, degrees in the humanities can be some of the least advantageous in finding a job. Therefore it’s not surprising students want to study something that will put food on the table.

        • Agreed. I also work at a large urban university, and it has been made clear that while academics is “important”, what is REALLY vital are those grants, research dollars, and alumni gifts. We are actually strategically shrinking the size of our student body and raising the bar on admissions, taking in fewer, better students with the hope that they’ll attract a higher caliber of research faculty (who bring in more money). And, when these students graduate, they’ll produce a more successful alumni base who will, in turn, feed money back to us.

          Of course, all this incoming money leans VERY heavily towards the sciences – soft and hard – and away from the arts and humanities. It’s a tough call, but I think within the next generation, many of these esteemed institutions will be fighting for their lives.

  12. Most people don’t read classic literature unless they’re forced to. Just a fact of life. And forcing people to read something has never been a way of generating love for the material.

    The truth is, few people have ever wanted to read these books. Even when ereaders were something out of science fiction.

    • Indeed. I absolutely hated 1984 when we were forced to read it at school. I must have read it a dozen times since, now I’m allowed to read it as a story, rather than agonizing over what every word meant to the author.

      English language teaching has probably turned more people off reading than… well, just about anything short of Nuremberg book burnings.

    • I don’t know. They asked me to read them and then explained them, and I loved it. Of course, I was pretty much entertainment deprived.

  13. What? Students want to do less work if they can get away with it? That’s a new and interesting trend!

  14. A Victim of Charles Dickens

    “Daddy, why am I slogging through quicksand?”
    “Because I had to slog through quicksand.”
    “But it isn’t any fun. Why can’t I just go to the playground?”
    “Because slogging through quicksand is educational.”
    “But it’s boring!”
    “Doesn’t matter. I had to do it, my father had to do it, and so do you.”
    “But what am I learning?”
    “That life is difficult, son, and sometimes it just plain sucks. By the way, you forgot to pack the hardcover editions of Finnegan’s Wake, Ulysses, A Tale of Two Cities, and War and Peace in your backpack. You aren’t sinking fast enough.”
    “But, Daaaad, I have them on Kindle! And they’re even worse than the quicksand! Why do I have to read those?”
    “Because I had to read them. Now shut up and go grab your books.”

  15. Re: Wittgenstein, I find that it’s a lot easier (and interesting, as opposed to snooze-inducing) to study philosophy from audiobooks than from books. Because frankly, big vague concepts are much more interesting when you’re biking than when you’re sitting in a classroom or turning pages. Also, you can’t usually pause the teacher to make comments, or rewind him.

    Naturally, every philosophy major thinks this is insane, even though most classical philosophers were big into the concept that learning comes through the ear, not the eye.

    The invention of books didn’t destroy learning (although yeah, we eventually started to slough off on teaching memory skills). Neither did the invention of ebooks.

    • Quite right on the memory skills. Probably accounts for the epidemic of Alzheimer’s. They did link that to lacking intellectual activities.

      • In the first place, Alzheimer’s is not an ‘epidemic’, since it is not infectious. In the second place, the principal reason it was uncommon in the past is that most people did not live long enough to develop it.

        Thirdly, ‘they did link that’ explains nothing: correlation is not causation, and most studies in the ‘soft’ sciences (statistical methods, small samples, single tests) do not even establish correlation with a sufficiently high degree of certainty. If you are churning out low-grade studies based on a 95% confidence interval, you can expect one out of 20 studies to produce false positives — but it is the positive results that you publish, and far more than one out of 20 published papers will end up being bogus.


        • Make that “increase in”. And the other aspects do not apply, since the numbers have risen dramatically in the recent decades.

          As for science: I just read an article on a study that showed mental activity prevents or slows down Alzheimer’s.

          It makes sense on a non-scientific level: use it or lose it!

    • Google the Peripatetic School. 🙂

  16. I’m currently reading – and loving – Anthony Trollope’s entire Chronicles of Barsetshire on my Kindle. So glad I don’t have to wrestle with these fat books. They are entertaining and satirical and occasionally laugh out loud funny, even though they are also very much of their time and a bit sentimental for modern tastes. If I’d been forced to read them as a student – even though I did an Eng Lit degree – I don’t think I would ever have gone back to them. I’ve never read Finnegan’s Wake. I doubt if many people have. I’ve read most of Dickens though, not because I read them at university but because my late mum was a fan, and told me all about the wonderful characters before I ever got round to reading them. And then started me off with A Christmas Carol. It’s very easy to put young people off the classics. Then, the older you grow, it’s amazing how much better they seem to become. (Bit like Mark Twain’s remark about the intelligence of his father!)

    • Yes. I came to Dickens late. Had been totally turned off by TALE OF TWO CITIES and read nothing else until my renaissance prof said she loved THE PICKWICK PAPERS. Have loved Dickens ever since.
      Also like Trollope. And I love the 18th c. novels, especially TRISTRAM SHANDY. Funny and very wise!

      I hate to say it, but nothing I’ve read that has been published since has pleased quite as much.

      • I hate to say it too but with a few exceptions I probably feel the same. Not sure what that says about us! I think Pickwick Papers is wonderful.

      • I didn’t like TALE OF TWO CITIES when I was ‘supposed’ to read it in school in the ’60s, however, I came to appreciate the story when I taught it to 9th graders in 2000.

  17. “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”


    • Yes. It’s been a steady decline every since. 🙂

    • I’ve always wondered how Socrates parents and grandparents felt. LOL

      • Socrates actually had a point. His parents and grandparents were too busy fighting for their lives against the Persians to be spoilt brats. Remember, when Socrates made that observation, Athenian democracy was in the process of falling apart: the Spartans were kicking their backsides in the Peloponnesian War, their subject cities were rebelling, and their citizens were busy electing the most incompetent leaders they could find.

        If you think that quotation proves that there is never any decline in any society, but that it is all a figment of the diseased imagination of old people, you have another think coming.

  18. I’ve read more classics on my e-reader than I ever did of physical copies at any time throughout my schooling (at any level). Plus I hate to dog-ear and highlight in my physical books so e-readers are the perfect solution for that. I also highly doubt that students are turning from humanities subjects for such a ridiculous reason as books being digital rather than physical. I’m pretty sure if humanities is what a student wants to go into, it isn’t going to matter what format the context is delivered in.

  19. Follow the money. People are avoiding the humanties because they end up with a big debt and no job.

  20. Yes. Because…ebooks. Lazy students. Computers. Bad parenting. Entitlement.

    Nothing to do with the fact that we’ve structured the economy to overwhelmingly reward sociopathically-minded parasites, while providing less and less economic incentive for those who want to actually make stuff, or (gasp!) do something that might support society in the long-term. Nothing to do with the fact that this generation is being crushed by student debt and can’t afford to be “high minded” unless they want to pay for it for the next thirty years in debt-servitude, all the while being derided for “not living in the real world.”

    Because…ebooks! Those damn kids! Mumble, mumble, mumble…bring me my cane, so I can whack it against something…


  21. The end of collegiate domination is coming. It is. As AMZ and others divebomb the lucrative and insular textbook market, busting it wide open with reasonable rentals and also –guess what– pirated textbooks for the price of membership on one or another pirate sites– the moneybags that have too long stabilized a sinking ship of state colleges and universities, is going to keel and be swamped.

    It is SO like DRM to my thinking. Make it hard for students to attend college by jacking the fees so high, insist on in situ appearances daily by students, fight them on transferring their credits because there are no equivaliencies platforms that are straightforward and easy to navigate, burden them with textbooks that are a king’s ransom, give them ‘grades’ for memorizing sh that they likely will NEVEr use again, and call it ‘good for you to swill bs in order to ‘earn’ this paper that is just that, paper… with NO guarantee and often NO guidance on gaining employment about the 25k-40k+ mark for a single person. [I say that as a person who has ‘papers’ lol, but also have watched my children and grandchildren’ outcomes in ed, not even counting college, and the entire system appears ‘rigged’ –like trad pub… $$$$$ accrue to the big machine –and the money feed comes from the often overburdened, naive children and their parents and grands. There’s value to educ, no doubt about it, but how it is delivered so it SERVES the learner and not just the Machine, is a huge issue– so similar to indie vs/and trad pub-ing]

    Making it easy for students to learn what is useful to them and what will truly help them enter the works they wish to, without the regulatory equiv of a DORA in every state breathing down the students’ necks about YEARS spent in ‘required’ ennui– would be like lifting DRM from ebks. Allowing freedom of useful and in depth info to be chosen by and read by the reader– across many kinds of venues, not just what I call ‘sit on dead tree for decades’ in order to have the paper that came from said tree. Oy. ‘Help me Rhonda…’

    • You and I have often disagreed about things, sometimes violently. You may therefore be pleased (or alarmed) to know that on this point, I agree with you entirely. Higher education is overripe for disruption, and I see signs that it is already beginning to happen.

      • from your lips to Creator’s ears Tom. Always happy to find with others what we agree on and can get behind together.

        I sense, looking back, people might eventually see that many universities began with a religious/humane ideal. Somewhere it became sidetracked. In part, I think, because taxpayers never see line items of uni’s budgets, where the payoffs go and to whom… and esp why. When I was a trustee on two uni boards, one was well run, the other was, at least until our new board took over, a hot mess of obfuscated and tangled paper trails re money… finding then through much needed audit that a quarter mil here, a half mil there was used for ‘barely business’ trips to exotic locales, and to pay outside ‘experts’ to do jobs that were never done to benefit the uni [read feathering ‘friends” nests.]…dont even get me started on student loan and state grant programs that indenture the students.

        I’d just say Tom, let’s keep speaking about this to spread the word. The secrecy of the actual outlays and preciousness of the protective layers of the plant toward itself, ought be known so that students can have a chance to demand change when they see the actual lay of the land, that they come first and have quality education at reasoned prices and without debt after the fact.


  22. Bucking the trend here, but I think Prof. Baron has a point. The problem is, what she’s describing (and I’ve heard from other friends who are lecturers in humanities and STEM that it’s the same with them) is much much bigger than ebooks. E-reading is the scapegoat for the societal iceberg that’s wrecking education.

    As someone with a degree in hard science, it is my (albeit personal) opinion that “the Humanities” is being woefully neglected, as well as the environment of scholarly learning surrounding that, and other, environments. I think all Prof. Baron can see is the frustration of being an instructor in that environment, so she blames e-reading. I feel for her.

    • Ah, a wise man!

      The fall-out will probably be seen in areas where there is no obvious connection to humanities studies. I’m thinking of the decline in ethics among politicians for example. Or in big business. Or in our reaction to such things. Perhaps it also accounts for the genral lack of empathy exhibited by many people these days.

  23. I don’t think this article goes far enough. Eschewing digital for spine-bound paper books is a half measure. Even a return to scrolls on vellum fails to satisfy the lust for a medium with dignity equal to venerated literary fiction. We must call upon masons and sculptors to etch into fine marble the gems of erudition that merit preservation.

    Abandon ebooks! Repudiate paper! Forswear vellum! Return to holy stone!

  24. Newsflash: Facebook, Lolcat Memes More Interesting to Students than Finnegan’s Wake

    If I’m reading a good book, I don’t care who’s messaging me on Facebook…good book wins. They could try a cattle prod, but I doubt that would work either. Last week, I burned about an inch of oatmeal on the bottom of the pan because I was reading my Kindle–and I was standing about a foot from the stove.

    Ebooks though. Downfall of society? No. More like Downfall of Properly Cooked Oatmeal.

  25. Hard to believe this writer has ever even used an e-reading device. If you’ve got a book open on one, it’s not like Facebook is linked in it or even alongside it. You’d have to close the book to go look at something else … much like you would with a paper book.

    • My notifications on my iPad can show across the top so I can read them without setting the book down/shutting it. It depends on which way the notifications are set and what kind of device you are reading on. I’ve turned all but phone texting off on my iPad but then I also go totally offline for 25-72 hours every week.

      I suspect the author was referring to tablets not dedicated ereaders when mentioning “devices”.

      • Maybe, but as far as I know, Kindle devices still lead the pack in market share. And even by her logic, they are just as immersive as a print book. So her basic point — that e-reading is just inappropriate for certain books — just doesn’t hold up. Even if she were correct about reading on an iPad (and, based on your comment, she’s not), students could read on a Kindle instead.

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