New online formats for book publishing may resolve one of the biggest challenges college instructors face: getting students to not only complete their reading assignments, but also discuss them with one another. If I’m lucky, someone will volunteer a comment in response to my naked pleas, but mostly I have to poke, prod, wheedle and cajole students into making some kind of statement in class. And then, I don’t often get very sophisticated or detailed statements. It’s often reached the point when I have to ban the word “interesting” from class discussion, just to avoid hearing yet another pallid and noncommittal observation on a book, such as “it was interesting.”
Countless other educators also spend many long minutes standing in front of their students, practically begging them to speak to one another and to be more specific about the content of their reading. Instead of facing this frustrating experience again, I’m excited about innovative online activities that could revolutionize the way that books are discussed in academic environments. Instead of assigning readings and asking for comments in class or on online chat boards, applications such as Social Book from the Institute for the Future of the Book allow professors and students to annotate texts as part of a larger online conversation.
Social Reading: Old Dog, New Trick?
It’s important to realize that the concept of social reading is not new. As West Virginia University professor John Jones notes,
“…most of us first experience reading as a social activity. Whether having stories read to us as children or the collective reading that characterizes early reading instruction, reading begins as a social experience. It is only as we grow older that reading becomes a private, individual activity, one often divorced from contact with others. There are certainly many avenues of social reading that exist prior to digital networking-book clubs come immediately to mind-but the pervasive nature of digital technologies has the potential to transform all of our reading into a social experience.”
Historically, before the invention of the printing press, oral tradition provided “texts” that individuals and communities relied on for information, and for several hundred years following the advent of moveable type, books were still expensive and rare. Many historians have noted that public readings of pamphlets, magazines, and books in taverns, for example, were an important way that information was disseminated (a practice especially relevant during the American Revolution and a major contributor to the spread of anti-monarchial and revolutionary ideology.) We can simulate for students the same experience of developing intellectually within a larger social, political, and economic context.
Open Utopia: A Paradise for Educators?
As profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education, New York University professor of media and culture Stephen Duncombe seems to have found a way around the student-discussion impasse by using social reading in a new way. Using an open source variation on WordPress called CommentPress offered by the Institute for the Future of the Book, Duncombe created a new online version of Thomas More’s classic Utopia that anyone can comment on and annotate with the result hopefully being a rich text that enhances the reading experience for everyone. Duncombe’s whole goal was to “create communities of people talking to each other.”
This last phrase -”communities of people talking to each other”- describes an educator’s paradise, in which individuals are engaged in intellectual endeavors that they share, debate, parry, and examine. When I read about this project, I immediately considered how I could incorporate such activities into my history courses. I think it will work especially well with primary documents, which students could enrich by linking to supporting sources, historical interpretations, related documents from online archives, or provide their own analyses and responses.
For example, a document such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, though surprisingly brief to the uninitiated, could become a multi-layered, contextualized resource that contains links to his earlier writings, other digitized resources such as artwork and diaries of contemporaries, and even a scene from Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln. The written word could come alive in ways that will allow it to retain its original form and importance, but connect it to a broader intellectual context with just the click of a mouse. Rather than write individual papers or essays on the Gettysburg Address, students could contribute to the creation of a new version of it, complete with additional resources and commentary.
The Potential Problems of Social Reading
This new way of examining, discussing, and interacting with written material should not eclipse or replace the particular interactions with the self that occur during solitary reading, however. How many of us have experienced quiet moments of epiphany when we read something that illuminates a new corridor of thought, and reveled in the revolutionary implications new ideas can have on our lives? Social reading should be an additional tool, not a replacement for all reading.
Additionally, several concerns about independent social reading sites not affiliated with a course, such as Findings and Readmill, have emerged that should make all students and educators proceed with caution. On these sites, readers can post about their reading and respond to others’ comments. But some critics worry that openly available social reading forums will provide governments and corporations with new ways to surveil the habits and beliefs of citizens, a potential violation of privacy.
That’s why teachers and students should each take specific steps to make the most out of their social reading experiences:
- Educators should make sure that their social reading course assignments reside within secure course management systems such as Blackboard, in order to avoid any potential privacy concerns.
- Students should remember that any comments they make on a public forum will be considered not only as part of their grade, but also reflect on them personally. As always, comments should be professional, relevant, and well-written. Participation in any community, including a social reading one, comes with responsibilities.