Getting the books, or at least bits of them
One of the great revolutions during my life as a student was getting access to photocopying. More precisely, this happened during my time as a postgraduate research student: the University of Cambridge installed a photocopier in the library that could be used by students and on which they could – within the law of course – copy book extracts or articles. It allowed me to take some source materials home with me and work on them there. Recently I came across the pile of photocopied papers from that time (yes, I actually kept them all) and I was a little disturbed that, in some of these cases, I may only have read the few pages I copied rather than the whole work. In fact I wonder whether the emergence of this great new technology may have, just a little, undermined the integrity of my scholarship. Still, perhaps I did read the whole books, and just copied the pages I needed to refer to more specifically. I hope so.
A year or two after that time I was a young lecturer in Dublin, and I remember a student singing the praises of the photocopier, while then remarking rather disarmingly that ‘photocopying is not an aid to reading, it’s a substitute for it. You copy the work and carry it about, in the hope or expectation that you acquire its content and meaning by osmosis. But not by reading.’
Photocopying extracts from books and articles probably began what is now sometimes described as ‘disarticulation’ (a term taken from medicine), where students (and others) no longer take a whole work and address the full conceptual framework it expresses, but go for extracts and selected passages or chapters. Apart from photocopying, this particular trend was also supported by publishers who put together ‘highlights’ books that set out extracts from materials of relevance to the topic, sometimes with explanations to place them in context, sometimes without. And now more recently, we have the emergence of electronic publishing that will allow readers to purchase digital copies of chapters from books. One such service, assessed in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is Inkling – which offers book chapters for iPad users. It describes what it sells as follows:
‘Inkling brings the world’s best content to iPad with interactivity, social collaboration and simple ease-of-use. No more heavy, expensive textbooks to carry around campus. Inkling textbooks are more interactive, more flexible and cheaper. Download Inkling today and try a free chapter. It’s an entirely new way to learn.’
It is easy to feel sympathy for students having to find a small fortune to pay for hard copy textbooks. For them the possibility of getting digital copies of just the most important chapters and having to pay much less for this is a real benefit. But what does it do intellectually? Are we reaching the point at which nobody ever considers a complete idea because they never get to read the entire train of thought through the pages of a book?
The answer is not to reject the technology; it is here to stay, and as an iPad owner I can say that it is very very good. But we may need to look at how we use it, and to what extent we present scholarship as bite-sized expositions rather than as the elaboration of something conceptual. The answer lies in the hands of academics, and what they ask or expect students to do. I sometimes wonder whether, at least in some subject areas, we ask students to read too many bits and pieces, and not enough full works. We need to encourage more deep thinking. Or so I feel.