>Vellum, paper, computer screens, and teaching with technology

>ETA: I changed the title of the post so that you can see right away that this post involves students and teaching, as well as slightly more abstract ideas about the technologies of text.

So a comment Heo Cwaeth left me on yesterday’s Snow Day post and a post over at the Valve got me to thinking about the relative (in)accessibility of manuscripts, books, and the World Wide Web today and in their respective heydays and salad days. (And the Westminster Dog Club show got me thinking about the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. More on that later, but the point is: any topic A has an easy chance of making me think of medieval-related topic B.)

Heo Cwaeth commented that she, too, had a snow day, but she organized an online discussion so that her students didn’t fall behind on the syllabus. I didn’t do that and it’s not just because I was happy to have the day “off” (which I spent grading and writing paper topics, so it was still a “teaching” day). I didn’t do that because I’m not sure I could’ve gotten the message out to my students and because I’m not sure they all would’ve had access to be able to participate. Many of them don’t have computers or online connections at home. Seriously. *Many* of them. they and their families see it as a luxury. They rely on campus computers and public libraries, both of which were closed yesterday. Medieval Woman wrote the other day about students text-messaging and checking e-mail during class, which is not a problem I have at all, and not because my students are so polite and respectful of authority. (Actually, many of them are. Too much so. That has its own frustrations.) Too many people make way too many assumptions about the multi-tasking, technology-wise Millenials: those are not my students. In my classroom, *I’m* usually the most techy person in the room. And it’s because I’ve had access to a computer in my home for 15 years now (although I didn’t go online until about 10 years ago). And I’ve had that access not because I was particularly rich (um, yeah, those were my paralegal and grad student days, when I was getting poverty discounts on my utilities) but because I’d come from a culture — middle class, professional, whatever — that saw technology as a necessity, not a luxury, and so even when I had precious little money, I bought computers when I needed them. Sometimes I got by on relatively ancient technology, but I had the basics and I kept up at least in theory with what could be done with better equipment. But that’s not my students.

Now, there are some people in my university who think that all students should learn skills related to communicating online and therefore that every student should be required to take at least one DL course. I think there are better ways of doing this — how about a F2F course with a web component? How about a series of courses on “The Web in X discipline”? — they’re right that our students don’t know how to do these things. Every semester a handful of them don’t know how to send attachments, for example, and many of them read e-mail on the web and don’t realize that there are mail readers that will download and archive their mail. But what they’re wrong about — very wrong — is the requirement, which essentially will serve as a tax — either figurative or literal — on those many students who will have to drive to computer labs and libraries to participate in the class, or else finally buy a computer and subscribe to a cable connection at home. At that point, you might as well have a F2F class with all students having to be there.

This brings me to the post at the Valve, written by Tedra Osell by way of introducing herself as one of the newest members of their fold. At the end of the post, she writes:

Apparently the oldest title still in (continuous) circulation has just left off printing entirely, becoming a purely online publication. I don’t read Swedish, so I can’t decipher a word of the thing, although “logga in” is both obvious and, to anglophone ears, funny.

Poor Hans Holm, the paper’s editor for twenty years, thinks it’s “a cultural disaster.” I think it’s fabulous. A readership of a thousand people was huge three hundred years ago; now it’s miniscule by newspaper standards. If the most important effect of print culture was its democratizing potential (answer: yes), then online publication–cheap, self-archiving, and available worldwide–expands the project exponentially.

I’m glad she wrote “democratizing potential” and not something that suggested an immediate change, because certainly it’s not like Caxton opened up his print shop one day (to give an English example) and the masses rallied around saying “Huzzah! We can now afford and read books and newspapers must not be far behind! Long live our new democratic nation!” (Although, as an alternate universe picture of the late 15th century, this cracks me up.) Anyway, I digress. Yes, print had a democratizing potential, but that was in part because it was cheap. The web, meanwhile, while “self-archiving” and “available worldwide” is not, pace Tedra, “cheap.” The computer I’m writing this on cost me about $2000 (it’s a small notebook – more expensive than desktops) 2 1/2 years ago, and I only finished paying off the credit card debt it was lumped in with last year. To me, that was a drop in the bucket, an investment in myself and my work, and worth every penny. And to most of the Swedish nation who’d read the paper Tedra refers to, it wouldn’t be a big expense, either, since Sweden has an extraordinarily high standard of living. To my students — who aren’t exactly living in squalor — it’s a luxury. A newspaper or a book is a lot cheaper, epsecially if it’s the free weekly or a used paperback. Heck, many of my students don’t even have cable because it’s too expensive — which explains why they don’t get my references to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Battlestar Galactica.

And over at The Valve, the commenters pointed out the technological obsolesence problem of electronic archives, and I have to agree with them. Bullock has a bunch of writing from graduate school that’s saved in AmiPro, which no word processing program today can open. He also has letters from his grandparents from the 1930s which he can read just fine, but reel-to-reel tape recordings of them from the 1950s which he can’t access because he doesn’t have the hardware. I’m sure some specialist could solve both of these problems, but that’s not exactly democratizing, is it? There might be a kind of Ockham’s Razor-like theory of technology here — that the more complex the text-archiving machinery, the more likely it is to be inaccessible to the average person in subsequent generations, and so the simpler you make an archive, the better it will survive. This is why I keep thinking about printing out (on acid free paper, natch) and binding the years of e-mail I have saved from various friends, especially the Pastry Pirate. I have boxes and boxes of long letters from friends all around the world from high school and college, but in grad school I moved entirely to e-mail. Someday a cultural historian or archeologist might find those letters from my youth, but they probably won’t find the e-mails, unless I get around to that printing and binding project.

My reference to acid-free paper brings me to another issue of the archives and the survival of print text. There’s many a 19th century print object — books, periodicals, etc. — that’s in much worse shape than the manuscripts that Sir Robert Cotton preserved, and *he* had a fire! And it’s all because of the acid in the paper. Vellum’s tougher and lasts longer. Of course, vellum wasn’t exactly simple or cheap to make. A full size Bible could cost a whole herd of sheep or goats, and the man hours involved to turn those animals into page and those blank folio into inscribed text — well it’s beyond my ability to reckon at the moment. And then there’s the whole animal ethics issue involved, and while I’m not a vegetarian, I can see how books made out of animal skin might be a problem for some people today. So no, I’m not one of those wacky medievalist who think everything was better back then. What’s more, the Beowulf manuscript was badly damaged in Cotton’s fire, and continued to deteriorate over time as a result. If it weren’t for Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin’s transcriptions — on paper — in the late 18th century, and for the use of incandescant and fiber-optic light in the 19th and 20th centuries, much of the text would have been permanently lost to us, having crumbled or faded away. So yes, subsequent technologies have helped recover the older technology of writing on vellum.

But that doesn’t mean that new always equals better. Electronic archives can and do supplement physical ones (whether vellum or paper or whatever) and they can make rare items more accessible — in a kind of translated form — to those who might not otherwise be able to travel to them, but as manuscript scholars constantly tell librarians, digitization doesn’t replace the original and we still need to see it. Bringing it back to my students, where I started all of this: in my mediated classroom I can show them all sorts of manuscripts online, and I can archive the syllabus and handouts on our course homepage in case they lose the hardcopies I gave them, and so I make use of such technologies, very frequently, in fact. But I also try to keep the cost of textbooks down because I know they barely scrape by, and I’m no longer horrified that they don’t write all over their texts so that they can sell them back at the end of the semester (no more “What? An English major who doesn’t keep his or her books?! The horror!). The books cost about $100 and they might get $25-30 back at the end of the semester. If they see that as a windfall, no wonder then that they don’t want to pay $50/month for a cable modem or $1000 for a new computer capable of high-speed connections.

In some ways I wonder if our own age doesn’t look a little more like a pre-print age than we realize, with only the “gentry” and the upper classes able to afford the technologies that give them wider or at least more convenient access to some kinds of knowledge and information. Books are still around — for now — and I think the reports of their death have been gorssly exaggerated, but there’s a serious access-gap with online technologies that we have to keep in mind at institutions like mine, even as we gently urge students to learn how to use these tools.


6 thoughts on “>Vellum, paper, computer screens, and teaching with technology

  1. >You raise so many important issues here, Dr. V. My student population is similar to yours. The majority have computers at home, but there’s a significant minority who don’t (it took me the better part of a semester to figure out that this was why certain students always *called* me–on my office phone–to apologize for an absence or ask for an assignment clarification rather than emailing me).The university has some work-arounds for this, including a network-wide storage system with secure space for every user (so a student can write a paper on one public computer, and then come back and revise it on another, without needing a disk or a flash drive)–but for the commuters, who are only on campus two or three days a week? This isn’t as helpful as it could be.(And incidentally: I went through a phase in my mid-20s where I DID print out all the important emails I’d received from my friends–although I file all my correspondence in manila folders, like they do in libraries–but I really haven’t kept up with it since then, alas.)

  2. >Yes, my university has the same kind of storage space and I think students do make use of it. (I know *I* do!) But as you point out, it’s not exactly handy for commuters and my university, like yours, has many, many of those, some coming from 25-50 miles away! (If I didn’t know better, I’d think you and I were at the same university! 🙂 )And I get those calls, too. My outgoing message says something like “If you are reaching this message outside of office hours, it might be better to e-mail me if it’s urgent” and once a student flat-out said, “I don’t have access to e-mail at home, so I hope you get this!” (Meanwhile I can’t check office voice mail from home. Talk about ancient technology! 🙂 )

  3. >This is a great post, and I feel completely the same way you do about the fact that everyone having their own computer in class is not “democratizing” at all! Most of the computers my students have are the latest zip-zop awesome laptops that weigh about a pound and a half…those suckers are expensive! But what’s funny is that students are still asking me “when is the paper due again? when is the next reading quiz?” – and I now say, “look on the syllabus that’s linked to the WebCT site that you have access to right at this very moment! Except you’ll have to minimize you IM window…

  4. >I don’t know if you’ve been seeing the discussion about technology, and concerns about …I guess our false sense of security in putting all our eggs in an electronic basket. The concerns for them were more along the lines of Bullock’s AmiPro issue, rather than the expense of owning and operating computers on poor students, which I haven’t considered. I was going to say that most of our students live on campus, and therefore have access to campus computers at their home, but that’s not entirely true. The fact is, most of our students wouldn’t know hardship if it bit them on the butt. (OK, now I’m officially old.) For those who are struggling students, the university library has loaner lap-tops.Challenge-word: obsqgl – Obsequiggle, noun. the affected laugh one emits upon hearing the patently unfunny joke of an employer.

  5. >Whoops! *blush* Ansax-L: the discussion regarding technology vs. paper that recently went about a billion posts long. I believe it started with a post called Domesday 1986, referencing the digitized Domesday book, on the 10th of February. And then all manner of wonkery-geekdom broke out.

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