Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.
But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.
And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied — we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us — even the lab scientists — with Ph.D.’s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? —Alex Golub —Passion for Paper (Inside Higher Ed)
We’ve developed a physical relationship to paper because we *need* that relationship in order to use it.
I used to spend a lot of time sorting and filing documents on my hard drive. Then I installed Google Desktop, and now, while I still file my in-progress documents meticulously, the flood of incoming e-mails and files just goes into a slush pile.
This term, I experimented with an all-paperless semester, having students submit all their assignments electronically (other than short in-class quizzes and the like). It did change the way I grade, because I can no longer signal “I don’t follow you here” by squiggling a line under a phrase and adding a question mark.
But there are other benefits to the online-only classroom. No more lugging a shoulder bag stuffed with papers to my car every evening (and lugging them all back, mostly ungraded, the next morning). I no longer have students running after me, waving late copies of papers. No more “I asked my roommate to slip it under your office door shortly before the deadline, but I’m worried that he’s unreliable, so I’m just sending you this e-mail to let you know I’ll bring the printout when I get back from Spring Break in 10 days” excuses. If a student really has missed a deadline by 10 minutes, it’s no big deal — the date stamp is right there on their e-submission.
Even in the digital world, though, my media has physicality. I write a different way when I am scratching something out on my PDA. I find that I actually enjoy writing recommendation letters for students while I’m sitting with my son during his piano lesson. And I feel subversive and efficient when my daughter asks me to watch The Lion King for the 20th time, and I can sit there on the couch next to her critiquing student thesis statements.
I remember a rush of familiarity when watching an episode of The Simpsons some time ago, when — in a flashback sequence — Homer checked his LED watch. LEDs (light emitting diodes) burn so much power that your watch was dark until you pushed a button. I had remembered that, but I had forgotten that the way you viewed seconds was to hold the button down long enough for the display to switch. Seeing that brought back memories of my the Star Wars watch my parents bought me in 1977, and the choice I had of personalizing it by means of a tiny sticker of Darth Vader, Artoo and Threepio, and I think it was a logo with an X wing fighter. I also remember the exact location of the doorway where I tripped, fell, and scratched the surface of the watch. I had the same feeling then that I had years later when I was carrying my daughter through campus, and she fussed and fidgeted and knocked my gleaming burnished aluminum PDA out of my pocket, where it fell onto the sidewalk and got scratched up. (Not the display, thankfully, just the case.)
In the late 80s, I remember videotaping the startup sequence for whatever computer I was using at the time. Probably the Commodore 64. I think my reasoning was that if my *next* computer ever made me impatient during the bootup sequence, I could watch this videotape of my *previous* computer and be comforted that things were now much better than they used to be.
Of course, now computers do SO MUCH stuff during bootup that even though they’re much more powerful, I doubt the bootup time is any faster. (That’s why I like carrying around a PDA — there’s no lag time between whatever idea you had and your ability to start recording it.)
By the way, that video that I made of my old computer? It was on a Betamax tape. Oh, well.