The Digital Reading Shift

Contributors to the latest issue of Pedagogy, “The Return of Reading” (volume 16 and issue 1), examine why the subject of reading in English studies acquired visibility in the 1980s and 1990s, fell into relative neglect, and only recently experienced a resurgence. It’s hard to examine reading today without thinking of digital reading, and several of the issue’s contributors describe how our understanding of reading has changed—and should change—in the digital age.

In “A Genre-Based Approach to Digital Reading,” Janine Morris argues that, although we associate quick, shallow reading with digital media and close reading with print, this binary “ignores the incredible overlap between the reading strategies we use to read both print and digital texts.” “Simply put,” she writes, “it makes a difference whether one reads a tweet, a blog post, a Tumblr post, an online scholarly article, or a Facebook page—and referring to them all as ‘digital reading’ obscures these differences.”

Mike Edwards, in “Unpacking the Universal Library: Digital Reading and the Recirculation of Economic Value,” argues against two claims: one, that digital reading harms pedagogical approaches associated with English studies; and two, that reading—and what’s required of students in today’s world—remains unchanged. Instead, he writes, “the skills associated with reading are changing in response to social and technological changes.”

“Quietly, and without anyone quite having noticed, paper has ceased to be the assumed final destination for thought,” writes Richard E. Miller in “On Digital Reading.” “If what you are writing and thinking is not destined for a screen, it might as well not exist.” Miller discusses how teachers can respond to reading changes in a digital age, when “distractions of every variety are not only immanently present in the screen’s keyboard but also manifest on screen, atop the very text one is reading.”

The Return of Reading” is the most recent Duke University Press publication to discuss digital reading, but it isn’t the only one.

A 2013 interview with literary critic J. Hillis Miller, conducted by Bradley J. Fest and published in boundary 2 (volume 41 and issue 3), discusses the consequences of the shift from print to digital books—a shift Miller calls “a total change in the way we live now.” Although there are advantages to e-books, Miller says, “the context is different. Now the book belongs to the expanse of the enormous, disorderly cyberspace. The Internet gives access to a huge collection of texts, graphics, and music, of which printed canonical literature in e-form is only a tiny, tiny part.”

The Internet may be an unprecedented source of information, but “with each click, we risk taking pictures and words out of context, and the illustration of expertise knowledge is in constant jeopardy,” writes Jing Wang in the article “Reframing the Visualizing Cultures Controversy: Let’s Talk about the Digital Medium,” published in a special issue of positions, “reconsidering the 2006 MIT visualizing cultures controversy” (volume 23 and issue 1). “Surfing means just that—skipping around from article to article, from image to image, from the textual to the visual and even the auditory, back and forth and across mediums.” Wang argues that “knowledge has become unstable because it picks up the unstructured, unsettled, and unbounded properties of the digital medium.”

In “Reading Communities in the Dickens Classroom,” an article published in Pedagogy (volume 15 and issue 2), Susan Cook and Elizabeth Henley describe a college course on Charles Dickens that engaged students in two types of communities: oral reading communities modeled after Victorian performances, as well virtual classroom communities. Cook and Henley expected students to prefer the online communities because of their comfort level with technology, but they were surprised to find that the students felt a stronger sense of community in the oral reading project. “The outcome from this one class,” they write, “indicates potential problems with the ways we equate digital environments with other types of environments without theorizing the connections and disconnects between them.”

Interested in learning more about digital reading? Check out the full-text articles linked above, made freely available.

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