Old and new: from periodical to ipad

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This picture shows the presents that I (rather unexpectedly!) received from my (wonderful, generous) parents for completing my PhD. In the top right is, quite recognisably, an iPad: the future – or is it present? – of publishing. And the aged book and blue pamphlet next to it? That’s a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) and one of the original serialised parts (No. XI, October 1856).

The contrast between these gifts couldn’t be more apparent, the past and future of the history of the book; and questions around the history and development of the book have been very much on my mind this week following the “What is Academic Writing” session run by IATL on Monday. In a day of interesting talks, it was Richard Miller’s discussion of writing instruction in the US which stuck with me, focusing as it did on the shift to new media and what this means for writing. Using images from Al Gore’s Our Choice recently published as an eBook app, which makes thoroughly innovative use of interactive features – Miller argued that this is what we are now – or will be, or need to be – writing for; the text is no longer just text, but increasingly embracing not just visual/auditory media, but this entirely responsive interactive style. And this, he stated, was what we now need to be teaching students to write for and with. With the example of his text2cloud blog he showed how he is changing the future of writing instruction by teaching students to work with new media so that their academic essays are written through and for digital technologies. Video, sound, and other audio-visual features were integrated into the text such that these became not just texts for critical reflection but part of the process of analysis themselves.

This raised a lot of interesting ideas about teaching and learning academic writing (and critical thinking more generally), and whilst I’m not convinced that the days of the academic essay are over, there were many discernable advantages that I could see in this, not least getting students really engaged in the writing process – not just focusing on the end product for the final mark, but really getting involved in critical analysis in a much more involved and responsive way. The open-endedness of the project seemed particularly valuable – that students continued to work on pieces past submission deadline because, as Miller pointed out, thinking doesn’t stop the moment the piece is turned in (or at least, we’d hope it doesn’t! hence the value of actively enabling that on-going process). The lingering question for me was whether the advent of new media needs to signal the end of the academic essay in the way Miller suggests; why does new media need to be positioned as diametrically opposed to the traditional academic essay? Can’t all of this fantastic work also develop into a reinvigorated approach to “traditional” academic writing? There’s a lot of value in the crafting of argument and reflective processes that enable that, which the immediacy of new media doesn’t seem to allow for.

periodicalAll of which I’m still mulling over as this academic year ends and fresh opportunities for teaching hopefully await at the end of the summer. But in the meantime there were some more immediately resonant questions about the history of the book and where we’re at with the move into the digital age, especially as I sit here with Dickens and the iPad side by side. The literary student in me wants to resist the move to the digital age, no more so than when handling a 160-year old copy of my favourite novel, in all its sturdy weightiness. I can’t help but feel guilty at downloading a book or two onto the iPad, which feels like another nail in the coffin for the physical book, even though it’s justifiably so much easier when your research largely focuses on 800-page novels. And what about this idea of writing for this new form of reading, crafting academic work into a form that not only embraces but is specifically designed for new technologies, which really seems like the final nail in the coffin for print publication, as though we’re thoroughly capitulating to digital media and decrying the end of the book as we know it.

But then the periodical pamphlet is a stark reminder that perhaps all of this is just sentimentalising the book, because the core concept here is nothing new: as the periodical reminds us, writing has always adapted to and embraced new forms. With the advent of serial publication, Dickens and others experimented with writing that was specifically crafted to the new possibilities this raised, utilising the formal qualities that the material format both enabled and delimited. (And if we bemoan the presence of targeted adverts on every webpage, the 27 (!) pages of advertising that precede and commence the pamphlet again stand as testament that this is nothing new!) Going further back, too, the development of writing has always been dependent on the material conditions of the book, evolving and adapting to new forms of print publication. The written text itself isn’t a “natural” product, it’s a cultural artifact, and writing is always a historically and materially conditioned process. So whilst it’s easy to despair as paper gives way to screen, perhaps it’s not so much the end of the book but just another stage in the evolution of what a book is, what it can do, and the possibilities it offers us as writers.

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6 thoughts on “Old and new: from periodical to ipad”

  1. Great post! I think this is exactly where we are: I love your opening visual—and the reasoned and thoughtful meditation alongside. If we don’t build examples like this on the web, no one else will!

  2. This is a really excellent and thoughtful piece Charlie, and you’re dead on when you point out that Dickens himself was responding to technological advances. I think your optimism is well-placed, and it’s only if we resist that academics will be left behind. I agree that I’m loathe to see the death of the print book; but then, I read so many of my texts online now that I’m inclined to believe there will always be different markets for different kinds of reading.

    The related theoretical/practical issue in editing at the moment is perhaps of interest, with people talking about “The Death of the Editor” in the face of hypertext and reader-interactivity which cedes editorial responsibility to the end-user. For a text like Hamlet, for example, the logic of hypertext and availability of electronic editions means that, theoretically, one can simply dump all of the different texts and possibilities into a connected series of e-texts and allow the reader to navigate them for him/herself. The counter-argument to this, of course, is that there is some kind of value in the authoritative academic voice of transmission that helps mediate a complex text(s) for an audience. The push towards electronic texts is happening so fast that there’s an ongoing question about how end-users (and I’m deliberately using this term instead of ‘readers’, though both apply) are meant to navigate the wealth of possible material that presents itself. Is there the risk of a dispersal of rigorous learning amid the white noise of multimedia content? Is there a risk of style distracting from substance? I don’t know, but it strikes me that we need to be paying serious attention as academics to how we’re selecting, packaging and organising materials, particularly in a pedagogic sense, rather than falling into the trap of assuming that more is necessarily better.

  3. Thanks Pete,and that’s interesting. But how much does this mean the death of the editor? Admittedly I don’t know much about the processes involved (and perhaps we’re talking about different kinds of e-texts?) but I would have thought that in the case of more interactive texts, the editorial involvement is actually greater because there’s a greater amount of para-text being provided. I’m also wondering how much this does hand over more to the reader- you’re assuming here that with a printed text, the reader actually does read all of that extra material. There’s an argument to be made, surely, that (say, for a general reader rather than an academic/student) an e-text can actually encourage more engagement with the hyper-text by presenting it in a more accessible and engaging form than the footnote/endnote (and let’s be honest, when did you last read every footnote of a book that wasn’t for research….). Being able to better package and present that material seems to have unique possibilities for enhancing, rather than dismissing, the value of the academic text.

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