Reading On-Line and in College

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about online literacy this week (time-limited link, look quickly), and I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that the author is pessimistic. The article cites distressing findings from new research:

In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, [Jakob] Nielsen exclaimed, "'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else. A 2003 Nielsen warning asserted that a PDF file strikes users as a "content blob," and they won't read it unless they print it out. A "booklike" page on screen, it seems, turns them off and sends them away. Another Nielsen test found that teenagers skip through the Web even faster than adults do, but with a lower success rate for completing tasks online (55 percent compared to 66 percent). Nielsen writes: "Teens have a short attention span and want to be stimulated. That's also why they leave sites that are difficult to figure out." For them, the Web isn't a place for reading and study and knowledge. It spells the opposite. "Teenagers don't like to read a lot on the Web. They get enough of that at school."

This, of course, spells the death of academia as we know it, unless we resist the temptation of technology and require students to read books, slowly.

Of course, I find it especially illuminating to put this up against Timothy Burke's essay How to Read in College, which offers some suggestions for new students facing large reading lists:

Professors assign more than you can possibly read in any normal fashion.

We know it, at least most of us do.You have to make strategic decisions about what to read and how to read it. You're reading for particular reasons: to get background on important issues, to illuminate some of the central issues in a single session of one course, to raise questions for discussion. That calls for a certain kind of smash-and-grab approach to reading.You can't afford to dilly-dally and stop to smell the lilies.

Now, I know there are important caveats here-- I have read all the way to the end of Burke's essay, thank you-- and that this is highly discipline-dependent. In fact, the author of the Chronicle piece is a professor of English (and the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), which has to win some sort of Cranky Luddite Title Prize), and most of his specific laments have to do with reading literature, for which Burke's method doesn't really apply.

Still, it's a striking contrast.

Personally, I come down much more on Burke's side of things-- the method he describes works pretty well for most of the reading I do in a professional context. If I look at a paper, I'm usually after certain specific information, and I do more skimming than actual reading. The web style of reading is a pretty good approximation of what you need to do to efficiently find information in science articles.

If anything, what the cited studies indicate to me is that we need to do a better job of teaching students how to find content efficiently, rather than forcing them to use old techniques and technology.


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Anyone else find it delightfully ironic that the Chronicle's website design makes it awfully difficult to read that article linearly and completely?

I think the writer just has a knack for inflammatory titles. Online literacy isn't a lesser kind, it's an advanced add-on module to the careful reading. Just like careful reading is an add-on module to memorization of e.g. poetry. At least, that's the order in which I learned those skills. I could be odd though.
But in my experience, the author has it all backassward.

Once we've mastered basic reading, the next thing to learn is discrimination: we want to know if what we're reading is worth our time. If we read indiscriminately everything start to finish, hanging on every word as if they are all equally important, then we are failing to learn.

As kids we were told to read newspapers and newsmagazines, but doing so indiscriminately fills our minds with a lot of crap, so much that any nuggets are unlikely to be noticed.

Later in life, when we read journals, the usual approach is to study the contents page(s), flagging any articles that might be worth our time, ignoring everything else, then going to the articles to read the abstracts, which tell us whether to read further or skip it.

I thank the Internet for speeding my reading. When I find something good, I will read every bit of it, start to finish, maybe read it a second time, maybe collect a few quotes or archive the article.

Often the writer doesn't get to the point in the first paragraph, so I may dig a bit further -- but faster -- to see if it's worth my time. Sometimes I get lucky and the writer proves to be an idiot at the outset, for which I'm thankful for saving me time.

Most of everything I see isn't worth my time. But the stuff worthwhile is priceless.

There is an essential distinction here which 6EQUJ5 (poster #2) hints at and which the author of the Chronicle article overlooks.

When you are reading something on the Web, it is essential for you to filter it in some way so that you read only the important stuff. There is simply too much out there for you to read it all. The same thing applies to journal articles: if they aren't relevant to my research I am less likely to actually read them.

When you are doing assigned class reading, there is already a partial filter in place: the professor chose the reading assignments for a reason. (It may not be a good reason, or you may disagree with the choice, but there is a reason.) In particular, if you are dealing with literature (as the first professor does) you absolutely *must* read closely, because the whole business is about subtleties in the writing.

Tim Burke's addendum covers the point very well: there really are two different styles of reading, and the key thing is to know when to use which style.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Sep 2008 #permalink

Not only is there too much information to read the web carefully, there's also the fact that Sturgeon's law applies doubly on the web, possibly fourfold.

By Bouncing Bosons (not verified) on 15 Sep 2008 #permalink

It would be interesting to see how online reading habits correlate with offline reading habits.
I spend a lot of time reading, both online and offline, and upon casual introspection I'm pretty sure that (a) I do more skimming (as a percentage of total amount of reading) online than offline, but (b) that has more to do with the sorts of things I read online and offline than the fact that it's online or offline. But I tend to do a lot of both types of reading in both environments.

Giving the same readers comparable (types of) text in hardcopy and onscreen, comparing how they read them, and correlating that with how much reading of the appropriate type they do as a matter of habit could provide some interesting results; I suspect that it would end up pretty similar between paper and computers (possibly more so for people who read a lot).

I made it through about the first couple sentences, can you just give me a quick summary?

( I agree we need to teach kids more about content seeking and acquiring rather than forcing them to read books the old fashioned way, but I think it's like learning to make movies on digital, it's always much more useful to learn on old 16mm film. )

Becca (#1) is so right! "Just like careful reading is an add-on module to memorization of e.g. poetry."

Time was, poetry was the preferred medium for what we now call Scientific theory, as well as transcendental.

Did you know that Julius Caesar wrote a (unfortunately lost) "Astronomia" epic poem on Astronomy? The Atomic Theory of Democritus was popularized by the poem "De Rerum Natura" by Lucretius. Google "Zoonomia" and find out what Erasmus Drawin was up to.

So... now that American public schools have abandoned the memorization of poetry, while students carry iPods and iPhones and the like into the classrooms and listen and text instead of paying attention to the teacher, what are we to do? Seriously.

No wonder all my professors think I'm so damn smart. Is it because I just pay attention to what I'm reading?

Way to go peers. Set the bar low so that I look good!