Regarding e-texts

9-14-2014

Memo to the teaching faculty regarding the WA position on e-books, (as proposed by the curriculum committee last spring)

I do not disagree with any of the bemoaning of the passage of the era of beautiful, tangible, smells-like-paper, filled-with-another’s-annotations texts. Traditional “hard-copy” paper texts have, and will continue to have, advantages. There’s a kind of serendipity in finding one in a library or bookstore, or on the shelf at a friend’s house or in the beach house where you’re vacationing. I personally have moved back from the Kindle to paper for a large portion of my reading because I miss the geography of the book. When I want to retrieve a passage, I, like many of us, have a pretty keen sense of whether it was an eighth of the way through the book, or halfway, or three quarters. I have a visual memory of whether it was on the right or left side and where it was on the page. I also miss the sense of how “big” a book is, the heft of it, and the always-immediate visual sense of how far along I am. The percentage statistic at the bottom of my Kindle does not give me the same sense or the same satisfaction.

And yes—there are advantages to taking notes by hand, to learning cursive, to writing things out rather than taking notes on the computer; and yes, there are issues of distractibility with e-texts and their connectedness to the internet. It is important to disconnect in order to focus and go deep, and that can be a challenge to all of us in this new paradigm.

None of this means that electronic texts do not have a compelling set of advantages. Whether those advantages are equally compelling is an open question. And perhaps a bit of a moot question, as none of this means that the world is going to stop evolving and that our habits will stop changing. Remember—Socrates refused to write anything down because he believed that it would weaken our ability to remember things if we could write them down and file them away for later retrieval. He was absolutely correct in his analysis, but the world changed anyway. And then the printing press was invented, and then we fetishized books and written textual knowledge to the exclusion of direct experience. It was even worse than he thought.   But the world kept evolving in that direction anyway.

We cannot discount the many calls we have received from parents over the last three summers asking about our policy regarding electronic texts. It was clear three summers ago when I arrived that we needed to be able to respond to that reasonable question—we needed a policy. Until this past year, we asked the departments to set policy, and most departments decided that it was a matter of teacher choice. Teacher choice must be designated in the MBS system. That choice is, in many cases, not clear to users. As these choices become more complex, we have to provide more guidance to students and parents. It is incumbent upon us to provide clarity. Every book we list as required must be clearly marked as to whether the e-text version is an option.

And, it is incumbent upon us not only to support and promote teacher agency, it is also essential that we promote student agency. We cannot continue to demand printed texts as the default for all students simply because it is our comfort level. In other words, what we are asking is that if we don’t have a pedagogical reason to ask that they all purchase a hard copy, let them buy according to their preference rather than ours.

What would constitute a pedagogical reason? Anything from the sublime to the mundane: perhaps the edition you need is not available in e-text; perhaps you will be using graphics that do not translate well in the platform in which it is available; perhaps you want to teach them close reading skills and you need everyone to have a hard copy in front of them and a pen in their hand. (Perhaps the next lesson is the same exercise in electronic form so you and your students can explore and discuss the benefits and limitations of both.)

Clarity and consistency is important, as is teacher agency, as is student agency. Last year the curriculum committee struggled with this question over the course of several meetings. We decided that the institutional policy that does not take away teachers’ agency is to ask that those teachers whose preference is always for paper texts reflect on the reasons for that preference. If there is no reason beyond teacher preference or our own comfort level to require that kids buy paper, we can let them choose according to their comfort level. It is not a mandate; it is a request to engage in reflective practice. If some teachers are not ready, we understand. Our collective reflection will benefit all of us. Our clarity and consistency in the ways we communicate options to kids and families will be greatly appreciated.

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