Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: “It’s the end of the [academic] world as we know it…”

Monday, November 1, 2010

“It’s the end of the [academic] world as we know it…”

“The 21st century belongs to electronic culture and graphic novels, not musty old books.” -Douglas W. Texter 

Many people refer to my generation as “digital natives.” According to them, we have not only a natural capacity but an affinity for technology and anything related to our new digital age.

My sister and I got our first computer (a Packard Bell…I don’t even think this brand exists anymore) when I was about 7. Before that, I would use my parents’ computer (which ran on DOS) to play Math Rabbit, Reader Rabbit, and King’s Quest IV (we had Prince of Persia, too. But it was too hard for me back then.) I can only vaguely remember the few years at the beginning of my life when there was only a typewriter in the house. And the typewriter and computer(s) happily coexisted for several years before the older of the two suddenly became a useless antique (if only we had kept it a bit longer it might have switched back to a cool collector’s item by now!).

My point here is: Yes; it is probably accurate to call me a digital native. Even as a non-techie English major, I can still figure out how to do most of the basics on any computer (PC or Mac), can help older people dig around in a cell phone for an option they’re missing, maintain my balance through all the constant Facebook reformattings, etc.

But something must have happened to me in those first few years of my life when we only had a typewriter. Maybe I ingested ink or something. Maybe I inhaled printing fumes from the books I used to pull out of the shelves for fun when I was a baby (NERD ALERT: If your still-crawling baby’s favorite activity is to pull books out of the bottom shelves and pretend to read…you have just popped out a bookworm.) I don’t know. But I know that this whole e-book revolution is not as exciting to me as perhaps it should be. I’m fine with the two modes coexisting…and I love finding full texts of books online (ctrl + f is a lifesaver when you can’t find that quote you need!). But I can’t help but fear that my precious books will soon be completely replaced with Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. And, frankly, I don’t want to curl up with one of those. And they certainly don’t smell anywhere near as good.

I thought, though, that the one place we’d be safe, at least for a while, was in academia. Who wants to read an e-Textbook! Right? No color, no note-taking or highlighting capabilities, small screen,…who’s into that?

Well, apparently some colleges and universities are. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some institutions want to force change-fearing students like me to get with it. “They're saying that e-textbooks should be required reading and that colleges should be the ones charging for them. It is the best way to control skyrocketing costs and may actually save the textbook industry from digital piracy, they claim.”

The proposed model reminds me of middle and high school: the student would pay a “course materials fee” (guesstimated at $35 per course) and the school would then take care of getting all the materials for them—digitally of course. Some books might be free to read online (in their entirety), but would cost money to download. If the student wanted paper she’d have to shell out some extra money and, if (and when) digital is solidly enthroned as king, that paper copy is going to be full price. This model might, indeed, save money. But it would kill the used book market. And we can all say goodbye book-sharing, pay-half, and other such money-saving methods if this really happens.

Higher education administrators “say they felt compelled to act after seeing students drop out because they could not afford textbooks, whose average prices rose 186 percent between 1986 and 2005, and continue to shoot up each year far faster than inflation.” But is this really the reason? After all, if every student doesn’t get an e-reader for free won’t this be a different kind of burden? Maybe it’s a “one time investment,” but it’s a harsh one to put up with just so they can bring the text to class? If the decision is truly based on concern and sympathy for students, I think these advocates of the plan should think again. Even the prices of digital books have been kept down after a lot of internal battles in the publishing industry, and if digital becomes the only game in town there’s no guarantee that this supposedly money-saving method will be that way in the future.

Most of the schools testing the new model are business schools. I’m guessing that English, my discipline, will be one of the last to get on board with an idea like this. With professors favoring particular editions of texts (mostly novels) that have certain introductions of scholarly notes and with no real sense of “editions” having yet formed for e-readers, let alone a standardization of basic things like page numbers between e-readers,  I don’t think the current state of digital books is a threat to my department. And I’m guessing many of the fields in GSAS, at least the humanities subjects, are in a similar boat.

For subjects (like the sciences) that are more textbook-based, the threat is growing fast. The iPad was the first e-reader to have color, because it is, of course, more than just an e-reader. Now Barnes and Noble’s Nook is introducing color. Once you can highlight, write, and link to things like chapter keywords on a big-screened color e-reader, the game may be up. (And the game may be up for textbook companies too…the one sector of the publishing industry that hasn’t taken a big hit from the economic crisis.)

People often compare the digitization of books to the digitization of music. For example, there is a lot of speculation about how we may, eventually, be able to buy only fragments of books, just as we are able to buy individual songs off an album. But all I can think of is how that typewriter is no longer in my house, and I didn’t even know what it really did before it was gone. I’m sure some people will disagree, but this digital native is as nervous as she is excited for the future. Additions and expansions are good; replacements are scary. I don’t just loved texts. I love books, including their physical form. And I don’t want the books I worship to become relics.

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