Computer Labs Aren’t Designed for English Lit Students

Long ago, I realized that computer labs aren’t designed for students writing English lit papers.

You may have heard about a revolutionary new development in communications technology.

[N]o wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It’s so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover! Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere — even sitting in an armchair by the fire — yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disc.

It’s the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge device.

As an undergrad at the University of Virginia, I recall elbowing my neighbor in the computer lab, trying to prop up my beloved Riverside Shakespeare (a huge, 10-pound, densely annotated behemoth), one or two books of literary criticism, the MLA Style Manual, and my latest rough draft printout.

Many of the texts I consult today are online; at this moment, I have ten overlapping windows open on my computer screen right now. Yes, I’m a multitasker.

When I return to the world of books, however, multitasking is awkward.

In some ways, books are the victims of their own success. Books are so commonplace that we don’t even think about them, or about how they work. Unless you happen to learn, the hard way, that books themselves weren’t designed to be cross-referenced this frequently by a person who also needs two hands free for typing.

We are in many ways a post-literate society, but books of all sorts are still a big part of the academic life. We’re in a period of transition, to be sure. While Harry Potter and other blockbusters sell a lot of copies, many, many other books hardly sell at all. Since there more readers on the planet, and more different books being produced than ever before, the chances are rapidly diminishing that any two readers have read the same book. If we don’t read the same books, we can’t talk about them, and the culture of books becomes less cohesive, less worth discussing.

Still, books do let us learn from and argue with people who have been dead for centuries. If publishers and libraries feel we have anything worthwhile to say, the books that we write may still be around long after we are dead.

Technology has a tremendous effect on how we write. When went off to college, I brought an electric typewriter and a Commodore 64 computer (I hooked it up to a little five-inch black and white TV screen that I thought was pretty cool). At that time, many students wrote out the first drafts of their papers by hand. The process of composing a draft was completely separate from the act of typing out the final draft. If you hit the wrong key, you would have to roll the paper out, dab correction fluid on the mistake, roll it back in, and keep typing. Any significant change meant that you had to re-type the whole page– or you would “cut and paste” — with scissors and clear tape. Then you would photocopy your patchwork quilt, and hope that the funhouse effect of the slanting rows of type wouldn’t be too distracting.

Today we bind our pages with glue, but printers used to take a big piece of paper, fold it into four, eight, or sixteen sections, and sew them to the spine. The bigger the piece of paper, the more efficient the printing process, because the paper was less likely to jam.

I find it amazing to think that someone, somewhere invented each of the features that we expect to find in books: the table of contents; the index; page numbers; the use of Arabic versus Roman numerals; chapter divisions; chapter headings; title pages; italics; the semi-colon. And putting the title of the book on the spine, so you don’t have to pull the book off the shelf? Brilliant!

I’m hardly an expert on the history of the book, so perhaps I have an overly-romanticized notion. Still, a Victorian reader knew perfectly well how you read a book. You start at page one, and you turn the pages sequentially.

Our Victorian reader also knew that you needed to have a paper knife handy. (Why? To cut open the edges of the folded pages, of course.)

We also get information about books from the design of the title page (Drippy red letters? Goofy balloon letters? Stately Times Roman letters?), the quality of the paper (glossy or pulpy?), the blurbs on the back cover, and even the context in which the book is encountered (Received as a gift? Purchased on impulse in an airport? Purchased under duress from a college bookstore along with a bunch of other textbooks we don’t really want? Found in an old trunk in an attic?).

Of course, whether a text is printed or electronic, readers still respond to grammatical and typographical errors, writing style, errors of fact, and so forth.

But authors of electronic documents must deal with another set of completely different set of contextual cues. Will your reader encounter your text on a dot-com website, with distracting pop-up ads? Does the page load quickly or slowly? Does it use garish colors? Does the reader know what else is on the site, and how to get there?

The literary novel is called a “novel” because it developed in order to take advantage of the technical and formal properties of the printed book, which was once a “novel” idea. Web pages are still very “novel.” Conventions are emerging, but every day more “newbie” authors are unleashed on the internet. Technology is changing so quickly, and likewise the conventions demanded by that technology. Hein writes:

A month in hyper-space can scatter the brain. Traditional books offer readers respite from hyperactivity. The book’s definitive, closed, linear argument lets mind and sensibility enjoy moments of inner harmony. Linear text offers the kind of contemplative thinking that goes beneath the surface. (Electric Language, xvi)

The word “paper” comes from “papyrus,” a reedy plant from Egypt (although a papryologist will tell you, papyrus is not the same thing as paper). As allegiances and power structures shifted in the Middle East, Europe was cut off from access to papyrus — which prompted the switch to parchment. The change in the medium precipitated a change in the content, and a sweeping cultural change.

What is parchment? If you were a medieval scribe, and you wanted to write something, you would need to find a sheep, kill it, cut off its skin, scrape the gunk off it, boil it in a vat of urine and who knows what else (don’t ask me how someone got the idea to do that), and hang it up to dry. While it was drying, you had to find ink somewhere. Standard sizes for books were based on the number of pages you could efficiently cut out of an animal skin. A sheep would produce about 16 pages.

All this means that books were rare. And that it was the rare scholar who had the luxury of being able to consult multiple different texts at the same time. Books simply weren’t designed for that kind of environment.

Thomas Jefferson's revolving book stand.Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia, had a solution: this absolutely wonderful rotating bookstand, which could hold five books (one on each face and another on top). It also folded up into a tight little cube, which would have made it perfect for my dorm room.

Computer lab designers of the world, take note! English lit students need rotating book stands in their computer labs!

Either that, or we need to teach more e-texts in literature classes.


Well, that’s a subject for another blog entry.

11 thoughts on “Computer Labs Aren’t Designed for English Lit Students

  1. Thanks for the link, Dennis, although my talk really addressed only one aspect of this sort of materiality. I was just trying to point out, or begin to discuss, how the screen isn’t the only interface, and how the interface and the material of the interface matters.

    Amanda, I’ve never encountered a book with uncut pages in a circulating library, but I have in rare books collections, e.g., at the UT Humanities Research Center. If you do a Google search for “uncut pages” you’ll find about 3,000 search results, many of which pertain to books of this sort.

  2. I have been working in a library for about three years now, and I haven’t seen a book that has pages like the ones you mention. You state that the books are “Victorian”; we have books dating into to the 1800s in our geneology department *insert pride of hometown family record-keepers*. Was this the only way to create a book or were there several methods?

    I know you also note that you aren’t an “expert on the history of the book,” but I would love to pinpoint the era and actually see one of these texts. Any recommendations? Do you think SHU would have any Victorian tomes? ILL?

  3. Aha, thanks, Nick. Yes, of course I realize I was working at an engineering school when I first learned about it, but since Joshua Sashmor is a math professor I sort of elided that detail in my mind.

    Credit where credit is due: BibTex.

  4. Thanks for the discussion of these issues of materiality and book/computer experience, Dennis. One thing I didn’t know about when I landed at Penn was the History of Material Texts Workshop; fortunately, I found it, and got the chance to learn about many perspectives on these issues through that seminar.

    I’m looking forward to Matt Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms (excerpt), which I think will prove a very useful and deep consideration of how the material concerns you’ve highlighted for books are present, and important, in digital media.

    I do have to point out that BibTeX was created by computer scientists (Oren Patashnik and Leslie Lamport), not mathematicians!

  5. Great entry! Your call for the rotating book stand brought a smile to my face. It IS hard to prop a book on one’s lap to retype citations and so forth.

    I bet you’d find a lot of answers to the other questions and issues that you’re pondering here…in a book. ;-) There’s a good one called ‘The History of Reading’ that your entry reminded me of — it tracks the culture of literacy concurrent with the changes in technology. And I always mention Ian Watt’s “The Rise of the Novel” which tracks the history of that genre of the book (you may have already read that one in graduate studies; not sure). Your comment about being “post-literate” was interesting…is this a reference to Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (another good one to read). Long live the book.

  6. Right… and that’s part of the reason why mathematicians so sensibly developed BibTEX and all those other cool universal standards for endoding bibliographical information and automating a lot of the tedious work that I still have to do by hand.

  7. Dennis,
    Try writing an exposition on developments in mathematics. The references are three or four pages in each on seven books (volume 3 of this, volume 4 of that, page 2961 of this, &c). I have had to multitask, with seven or eight texts :) This isn’t limited to the humanitites…

    Joshua Sasmor

  8. I wasn’t consciously referencing Ong, but I’m sure he’s the source of that meme that had propagated indirectly to my brain, via various new media venues. I’ll have to check out the other sources you mention.

    I used this blog entry to gather a few thoughts for a presentation on “From Text to Hypertext” that I just finished giving to my “Writing for the Internet” students. I hadn’t initially intended to focus on the novel, but when I realized how many freshmen there were in the class, I figured that many of them would have their summer reading experience fresh in their mind.

    I wanted to emphasize that the book is itself technology, and that a bizarre but wonderful contraption such as Jefferson’s rotating bookstand wouldn’t be comprehensible to someone with an oral or scroll-based literacy.

    Likewise, the particular attention I will ask them to pay to their hyperlinks, their page navigation, and the niggling details that go along with the practice of blogging may seem completely unrelated to their experience of text via books. While I can’t make their fears go away, at least I can acknowledge them.

    A few students were shocked to learn that you needed to keep a paper knife to cut the pages open! I got a little excited — more than usual, that is — when it suddenly struck me how exciting a library or a Parisian cafe would be, when you could assume that everyone with their nose in a book was also packing a knife!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *