[N.B. I have left some proofreading notes and corrections intact for class discussion and workshops]
Is Print vs. Digital the Wrong Question?
As I join this our class in thinking about some of the perceived differences between reading the New York Times in print and in digital formats, I have become am increasingly aware of some of the contexts around the question. For example, Rachel mentions that reading itself, socially speaking, has diminished in our culture. Harry argues persuasively that "neither the printed nor digital format can be labeled as ineffective or inefficient." I have taken this opportunity to reflect on my own role, as a writer, as a reader, and as a teacher, in thinking about how and why we read the New York Times. Two stories:
Story #1: About a year ago, a student told me that she was riding a Metra train into Chicago one morning and was reading her New York Times. She noticed out of the corner of her eye an older woman sitting across from her, who was also reading a newspaper. Their eyes met a few times before the woman spoke to her, smiling: "you seem kind of young to be reading the New York Times."
"It's assigned for my one of my courses at DePaul. We're reading it in our First Year Writing class."
"Really? Well, I used to read the New York Times, but now -- I'm a Dean at Northwestern Law School -- I have to read this," and unfolded her newspaper to reveal the Wall Street Journal.
The student recounted this interesting conversation in pretty excited terms: she felt like she'd had a meaningful adult conversation with another adult -- about newspapers. It's a passing anecdote now, but in the moment it was a transforming experience.
She said, "I felt like a grown up."
Story #2: I was raised in a small, northeastern, gray, post-industrial, working-class, ugly (as I perceived it) town. When I was young -- about 15 -- the people there struck me as kind of dumb and mean and racist. I sensed, in the way that 15-year-olds can, that there had to be a bigger, better, more interesting world out there. So I ran away from home, to New York City. It was easy: a three-hour bus ride.
I disembarked at 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, the worst possible intersection for a teenage runaway, and followed the flow of people toward Times Square and then father north, to what I now know as the Upper East Side. I ended up in front of a deli on E. 79th Street and sat at the counter among a disarmingly grown-up group of eaters -- and readers. That's what I noticed first: they, the adults, were all reading newspapers. I ordered a bagel with lox because it seemed to be popular and a specialty and thought it tasted terrible. But the root beer was great and I read a copy of the New York Times along with everyone else.
Even a dumb 15-year-old will eventually realize, "I'm 15 and broke and in Manhattan and I shouldn't be here." So I went home the next morning on the first bus.
That was in 1970 and I have read the New York Times almost every single day since, in both print and digital formats. In that newspaper that day in New York City, I saw the world that I knew must have existed elsewhere: there was art and politics and fashion and interesting people and ideas -- most important: the ideas -- and war and it all seemed to matter. The writing suggested to me that it all really did matter. I was a much different 15-year-old after that; I was calmer, I think, and learned how to be curious, and got into the habit of buying my New York Times every day at the local drugstore, where, they assumed, I was buying it for my parents.
And that's how the New York Times saved my life.
I now assign the New York Times as our primary text in First Year Writing. Part of me wants students to experience what I did -- to see the world in a new way, via the pages of the newspaper, and also, more importantly, to see what public and civic discourse looks like; to see what it looks like when done well, in a rhetorically sophisticated manner, on issues that matter.
Does it matter if it's in print or in digital format?
Neither of these two narratives would work without printed newspapers; they both depend on a kind of social interaction that print provides literacy can help to facilitate. And that brings us to our current topic.
[I've written myself into a corner here -- I wonder if I should argue that the format should be up to students. Would it matter in a class if students were reading the same materials, but reading them differently?]
In the meantime, I'll discuss my experience reading this article in four different ways:
- First, in print, early a.m., with coffee
- Next, via the Replica edition PDF
- Next, on my phone
- Finally, via the web version
Hidden After Offending, Mural at a State Office Is Back, for Peeks Only
I start my day with the print version of the New York Times. This particular article caught my attention because it is about an interesting piece of art, has political implications, and raises issues about representation and race.
I enjoyed reading it in print. I did pull out my phone and searched the mural's title and history at one point, however, and made a note to search later in the library database, just out of curiosity. I annotated a few phrases that stood out -- "Will the painting again offend or merely mystify people who will wonder what all the fuss was about? Will more explanation clarify or confuse the painting’s meaning?" -- and thought about what great questions those are. These are the kinds of prompting, generative questions that I like to ask about almost anything I read in the New York Times, and with some minor adjustments, we could ask the same things about Op-Eds and editorials, as well.
In the print edition, the mural's image is in black and white. In the Replica Edition, however, it is in color:
And on my phone, the color appears in high resolution:
Because I knew that we would be talking about these issues in class, I tried to be self-consciously aware of my reading experience -- was I scrolling and skimming or was I trying to do a close, careful reading? Was I comprehending what I was reading on the screen as much as I was in print? It is difficult to measure those activities in the moment, of course, but the heightened awareness of my process did allow me to think more deeply about the article; it's not hard to do that when you are reading the same text four times in one day.
One unintended outcome and consequence is that I felt I understood the issues and questions surrounding the mural and it allowed me some genuine curiosity about a piece of art that I might have otherwise inventoried in my regular, daily reading practice. For example, one of the ambiguities in the painting revolves around the black-male figure in the lower-right:
"Amid that symbolic swirl, in the lower right corner, is a striking and some say unsettling image: a slave in loincloth being held under the arms by a well-dressed white man.
It was that image and its potential symbolism — was the slave being lifted or restrained? — that led state education officials to hide “Genius” behind heavy emerald-color drapery in 2000, after department staff members, some of them African-American, complained that the mural was offensive."
I was able to increase the size of the image on my phone by spreading it with my finger and thumb, focusing on that part of the painting. The placement of the white man's hands does suggest lifting, which could affect one's analysis and reading of the mural.
This is another reason I want to read more about the mural's history, context, criticism, and analysis, so that I can see how other people have made their analyses for "lifted or restrained."
Finally, the annotation problem. Writing on the paper itself is and was easy; it's how most of us were trained to read in academic environments: skim for important concepts, ideas, key terms, people, dates, and questions to return to later. I am a regular annotator in books, magazines, and in the New York Times.
But annotating in any of the digital versions of the New York Times is impossible. I did the best I could with the highlight/copy feature on my phone, but it is not practical to read and to annotate like that all day every day. Highlighting passages on such a small screen invites decontextualizing -- I cannot see what comes before and after -- and where would I keep them?
I opened the web version of the article and used Scrible to annotate passages and quotes that struck me as important. This is an interesting process. I can see what comes before and after; I can color-code passages; I can share a link to my annotations. The potential downsides? It is another proprietary system to sign up for, it might not always remain free, and I do not know the extent to which students might be willing to invest the time needed to annotate in this fashion. It's not as easy as jotting notes in the margin.
This is a literacy issue, not a technical problem. People do not read and write in the same ways. It seems unlikely that people annotate in the same ways and that their motivations for annotating are the same. Nobody is going to give me a quiz on "Hidden After Offending, Mural at a State Office Is Back, for Peeks Only," so I am free to annotate based on curiosity, questions, ways to remember, and to prompt my own future rereading should I decide to return to this article in the future.
Print or digital? When I began this project, I was fired up to advocate for students reading the New York Times in print. I love the serendipity argument. I think there is something to the longform-narrative argument. I am intrigued by issues surrounding resolution and portability. But as a literacy issue, we should encourage students to read however and whenever they are most likely to do that, and in such a way that they will read more, in whatever format, and in ways that encourage curiosity, comprehension, and that encourages connections to other coursework, life goals, and reading as intellectually engaged, curious, culturally and civically aware citizens.