Kindling a Course

As some readers of this blog will recall, my fall-term undergraduate course in the Woodrow Wilson School is one of a small number of Princeton University courses using the Amazon Kindle device for course reading assignments. Each of the 19 students enrolled in “Civil Society and Public Policy” was given a Kindle DX, the large-screen version of the e-book reader, and all of the books assigned were provided free of cost as Kindle files. The reading assigned in this course is probably somewhat unusual, since all of the assignments are either monographs or chapters from book-length collections of essays. This meant that each student was given 15 complete e-books, since the entire book was provided even if only one chapter was assigned reading. In the past, I have asked the students to purchase most of these books, while the separate essays were provided in either a course pack or (more recently) as e-reserve material.

Princeton University was primarily interested in determining whether students in courses using e-readers would print out less course material than they normally do from e-reserves. From this point of view, my course was not a good choice, since so much of my assigned reading is in book format, and previously the students purchased the books. But in any case my interest was not primarily in either economy or ecology, but in pedagogy. I wondered whether there would be distinctive advantages or disadvantages in using the Kindle rather than traditional books. The short answer is that the Kindle was a serious disadvantage for my teaching style. I will explain why, but I want to make clear that my conclusion is specific to the way I teach this course and does not necessarily apply to other pedagogical approaches — or to other sorts of courses.

My problem was that I engage a seminar-style class in close reading of the assigned text, and the Kindle DX is simply too clunky to work well for explication de texte. It provides only two tones, so that it is not possible to highlight the text, although there is a cumbersome process to underline selected passages. It is possible to annotate the text, which is good, but the device has a tiny keyboard (one student said she couldn’t type accurately enough to be able to understand her annotations) and the annotations collapse into footnotes — to reread them one has to pass the cursor over the footnote number.

The result is that a student cannot easily review the reading in class (or later) to be reminded of what her reactions to the text were. Nor could I. Another annoyance is that there are no page numbers in Kindle texts, since the capacity to change font size means that there will be different text on any given page, depending upon the font.  There are “location numbers,” determined by word intervals in the text, and one can certainly locate text accurately through them — but moving around the text requires the student to use the search function (very useful in itself) to find the new location, an operation that requires several keystrokes. 

Late in the term Amazon released Kindle for PC, so that one can now read Kindle texts on your PC.  This solves some of the problems I have just mentioned, but it introduces others (and Kindle for Mac has not yet appeared). It is possible to transfer some (but apparently not all) annotations from the Kindle DX to one’s PC, but it is hard to do and the results are inconsistent. Students also complained that different books are apparently marked up (by the publisher?) differently for the Kindle, with the result that not all e-texts operate identically on the Kindle device. Students were troubled by the relatively slow loading of new pages in the reader — and only one new page is loaded at a time. Students were also frustrated by aspects of the sound-reading function of the Kindle. For all of these reasons, it was hard to use the Kindle in class, and I found it a detriment to my pedagogical goals.

Having said this, I want also to say that both the students and I are thrilled to have our own Kindles — so much so that several students confessed that they are giving their devices to mothers and siblings for Christmas! The students loved the portability (and relatively light weight) of the device, and especially the capacity to have access to all of the reading for the term in a single device at any time (or place). If I wanted to refer to text we had read four weeks ago, we could all “turn” to it.  The students were excited to find that it is significantly cheaper to purchase Kindle texts than their analog counterparts. Some of them liked the voice function. Others were excited by Kindle for PC, and many liked the capacity to change font size. But everyone (including me) thinks it is a great device for leisure reading and for travel. 

I wish I had been able to have a Kindle when I was commuting daily from Princeton Junction to New York City. And I will surely use it on long plane rides — right now I am reading a one-thousand page Ph.D. dissertation, and if I were traveling I could upload it into the DX and take it with me. Cool!  (For a much longer review of the device, read Tony Grafton’s 18 November essay, “Kindled,” in The New Republic — it is the fairest and most comprehensive account I have read.) There will be two or three competing e-readers out next year, and I look forward to trying them out. But on the whole I think I’ll go back to using the codex again, at least for teaching.

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