Kindle in the Classroom

How do eReaders affect the reading experience? In particular, do they improve reading comprehension? Do they enhance student learning in the classroom? Given the increasing cost of textbooks, the enormous amount of paper they use, to say nothing of their weight, these questions are especially relevant to students and faculty in academic settings.

Reed College, where I taught for many years, was recently one of seven schools selected to investigate the effect of Amazon’s Kindle DX on teaching and learning in higher education. Reed is a usual undergraduate institution, well known for its quirky, bright students with a traditional academic program that is among the most rigorous in the country. In terms of the percentage of its graduates who obtain the Ph.D. the College has consistently been among the highest ranking institutions in all disciplines. I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to teach there.

The study involved 43 students enrolled in three upper-level undergraduate courses--Seminar in English Literature, Seminar in French Literature and a Political Science course on nuclear politics--taught as is customary at Reed in relatively small conferences where students are expected to support their claims with specific textual citations and where, to keep the discussion moving forward, everyone needs to be able to locate in their own documents the passages cited by others.

The $489 Kindle DX was given to each student (they could keep them after the course was over) and they were asked to participate in the study on a voluntary basis but could obtain the course materials in printed form if they chose not to participate. Roughly 95% of the students signed up for the project.

Aside from issues of legibility (fair), battery life (good), paper savings (excellent), images, color features and graphs (poor), content availability (limited), etc. what interested me most was the evidence on comprehension of the reading materials. Both the students and faculty felt that their grasp of the material suffered greatly, largely because of the difficulty students had in highlighting and note taking.

One faculty member reported that “after a few weeks of trying to take notes by hand (or on their laptops, a number of students abandoned the Kindle DX” and chose to read the course materials in printed form. There was also uniform agreement that for an eReader to be of any use in an academic setting, it will have to be improved by easing note taking, highlighting and making comments in the margin.

In terms of referring to materials in class and switching back and forth between different pages in a document or multiple texts, the Kindle DX failed significantly on both accounts. Students missed thumbing through the pages, searching for notes they had made, and moving through the pages as quickly as they were used to with printed pages.

The evaluation concluded by noting that while students and faculty felt the Kindle DX “…in its current incarnation was unable to meet their academic needs, many felt that once technical and other issues have been addressed, eReaders will play a significant, possible a transformative, role in higher education.” The basis for this prediction eludes me for I see no evidence in the report to justify this belief. Perhaps they were thinking of the iPad, to be similarly tested next year by students and faculty at Reed.

I recognize the sample at Reed was small, that the academic conditions there are not representative of most colleges and that it was a very informal study of advanced classes without a comparison group that read the same materials in paper versions. Nevertheless, the findings at Reed are consistent with those reported by other colleges and universities that have tested the Kindle DX. They are also in agreement with a good many critics who have described their own experiences in reading non-academic materials with an eReader.

Like some of them, I also worry that reading on these devices will become an even more passive process than it already is. Yes, we read for pleasure and for entertainment and when we read for these reasons we don’t usually take notes or mark up the pages. Instead we move rapidly from sentence to sentence, rarely stopping to mull over any single one. However, if you can easily put pen to page, as I do with any book, then reading becomes an occasion to think further about the material, one that is not unlike any educational experience.


All the Lonely People

Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness? Pascal Mercier

I’ve always considered loneliness to be due to social isolation, to living alone without a friend or a companion to be with from time to time. In Lonely: A Memoir Emily White takes issue with this conception. She argues that chronic, “genetically programmed” loneliness is qualitatively different from situational loneliness.

In her essay, On Living Alone, Vivian Gornick voiced a similar view, “Loneliness, when it came, came—then and now—like a surge of physical illness.”

White also emphasizes that chronic loneliness is also different from depression and is not merely a symptom of that condition. It is a state entirely of its own, separate and always there, even when you are engaged in a close, intimate relationship. There are medications that lessen the impact of depression; there are none for loneliness.

White writes “…no one’s discovered a vaccine against loneliness; there’s no prayer or charm or safeguard I’ve discovered that can be relied on to keep the state at bay for good.”

Emily White was trained as a lawyer and Lonely is written in the manner of a well-orchestrated legal brief—carefully researched, systematically organized, a bit repetitive, but also personally revealing. “I used to be a lawyer and what I was looking for was evidence.”

Her book is that altogether rare blend of personal experience combined with empirical research. Her evidence is drawn from studies carried out by psychological and medical investigators, the accounts of a fair number of individuals who have responded to her blog and advertisements on Craigslist, as well as her journal record of a lifelong struggle with this affliction.

White’s experience with chronic loneliness began when she was a child, (her parents divorced when she was four and she lived a solitary life as her mother was away at work most of the day), continued through various adult friendships, other causal relationships, and current life with her partner, Danielle whom she met while playing in a lesbian basketball league. Still she notes that her loneliness is still lurking in the background, even though “the state was no longer as intense and all-encompassing as it had been.

Loneliness, as White often reminds the reader, is a state we don’t often talk about. Few people seem willing to tell others, even their closest friends, that they are often lonely. “Loneliness—especially chronic loneliness—is a state most people work incredibly hard to hide. It is not something alluded to even in intimate conversations.” You might admit you are feeling depressed, but rarely if ever that you are feeling lonely.

White asks, why hide this sometimes severe condition? She argues that loneliness deserves the same attention as any other emotional problem such as anxiety or depression. “There is no need for this silence, no need for the same and self-blame it creates. There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, and we need to start acknowledging this through a wider and more open discussion of the state.” This is precisely what she has done in this volume and, as one who knows well what it means to be lonely I praise her effort to do so.

While she has struggled with loneliness for years and tried every conceivable activity to alleviate it, sociability was rarely a problem for her and she was rarely at a loss for friends. All she yearned for was “the quiet presence of another person.”

“Passive company is something that’s hard to define but easy to recognize. It’s the comfortable, quiet state of cooking as your spouse reads the paper at the kitchen table, or half-listening from the study while your brother takes a call in the living room. Passive company provides us with the chance to simply be with someone else. It’s time, as Glenn Stalker put is, “when nothing much is being said.”

However, White concludes with a remark mystifies me: “…knowing what I do about loneliness—how it can lead to early death, and dementia, and illness, and cognitive changes, and headaches, and stress and threat—I haven’t tried to organize my life in a way that might keep it away.”

Yet I thought that in living with her partner, she had finally found the loneliness cure that she had been seeking all these years.


Epistemology 101

What do we know of another person’s beliefs or intentions? And how can we determine their meaning when we know they are trying to deceive us or even when they know we know they are trying to deceive us?

This is known as an “Expression Game” a term used by Erving Goffman to describe a situation where one individual tries to discover the meaning of information given openly or unwittingly by another or determine the truth of evidence that is intentionally misleading or false.

It is also the problem intelligence agents face in trying to interpret espionage evidence—decoded messages, overheard conversations, or discoveries. Frankly, it isn’t so different from the dilemma those of us who are not spies face in trying to figure out the meaning of what other people do or say.

In the May 10th issue of The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell treats this issue in a dazzling review of Ben Macintyre’s “brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining Operation Mincemeat.” In 1943 a male corpse was discovered off the coast of southwest Spain; the corpse was dressed in a uniform and was carrying an attaché case fastened to his waist. His papers revealed he was a member of the British Royal Marines. Eventually the contents of the case made their way to German intelligence agents.

The documents revealed the Allied forces were planning a major two-prong invasion from their bases in North Africa to Greece and Sardinia. What to make of this information? To believe it or not? Could it be a deception designed to mislead the Germans about the true location of the invasion? Or could it, in fact, reveal the actual location? Or could it have no relevance at all to the location of the Allied attack?

Various factors went into the way this information was presented to the German commanders, not all them designed in the best interests of the German forces. The hidden agendas of the cast of characters described in Operation Mincemeat is vividly summarized by Gladwell. In the end Hitler and his advisors concluded the documents were believable whereupon they alerted their forces and transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese.

In fact, the documents were fake, planted by imaginative British intelligence agents to lure the Germans into diverting their troops from Sicily, the eventual location of the invasion of over 160,000 Allied soldiers, thousands of frigates, mine sweepers, heavy guns, tanks in July of 1943. Operation Mincemeat was a total fiction from start to finish. As Gladwell notes, “the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.”

(I was amused to learn from Gladwell that Operation Mincemeat was based on a work of fiction that was read another novelist who worked for British intelligence and approved by a committee headed by yet another novelist!)

Why didn’t the Germans examine more critically the evidence? Was it believable, was it true? In retrospect, there were good reasons to believe it was a total fabrication. The doctor who had examined Martin, failed to detect any fish or crab bites that are usually found in a body when it is washed up on shore. Martin’s hair was not brittle, also observed when a body has been submerged for a while. And the same holds for his clothes, which didn’t appear to have been in the water for very long. Apparently none of these “red flags” were taken seriously considered by the Germans.

The issue that Gladwell describes so well is one of interpreting the meaning of espionage evidence like this that is “inherently ambiguous.” It is really no different that interpreting the meaning of anything someone says to you. Are they telling the truth? Are they trying to deceive or mislead you? Do they even know what they believe or if they will continue to believe it tomorrow?

In discussing another espionage case, Gladwell puts it this way, “…Germany’s spies told their superiors that something was true that may indeed have been true, though maybe wasn’t, or maybe was true for a while and not true for a while…Looking at that track record, you have to wonder if Germany would have been better off not having any spies at all.”

Gladwell wonders “…if you cannot know what is true and what is not, how on earth do you run a spy agency?”

And he concludes with sound advice for all of us: “The next time a briefcase washes up onshore, don’t open it.”


Ubiquitous Excesses

Ian McEwan let me down in his latest novel, Solar. After reading Saturday a few years ago, a novel that still percolates in my mind and that I have written about several times here, I thought he could do no wrong. But I found Solar a bit of ordeal and at times thought about giving up on it.

McEwan’s depiction of Michael Beard, the central character in the novel, was the source of my problem. Beard is overweight, five-times married, a womanizer par excellence, heavy drinking, “monster.” I found him utterly repulsive and, in spite of the fact that he was a Nobel-Prize winning physicist with a sharp and crafty mind, I could not overcome my distaste for his excesses.

Why McEwan endowed him with so many vices mystifies me. Nor could I fathom his depiction of the steady stream of Beard’s clumsy, selfish, idiocies. Beard forgets to go to the bathroom before putting on protective gear on polar visit and risks a horrible fate by trying to relieve himself in the icy open air. This is followed by a mindless act of gluttony before delivering a talk on climate change and, as a result, he is barely able to fend off the rumblings of his digestive system.

McEwan continues in this vein when Beard, after returning home from a conference, fails to call 911 when one of his student-colleagues is fatally impaled as he falls and cracks his head on the edge of a glass table. Beard has just learned that the young man had been sleeping with his wife. In response, he runs off to fetch a hammer that belonged to a workman, also sleeping with his wife, and smears it with blood in order to incriminate the unfortunate fellow.

In this way, the novel takes the reader through one preposterous event after another. It has been said that Solar is a comic novel. I confess the humor completely escaped me as I failed to find anything the least bit humorous or terribly ironic in any of these incidents. Implausible, yes. Ridiculous, yes. Totally absurd, yes. Humorous, no.

And this includes novel’s conclusion, when the falsely accused workman, after completing his prison term, arrives on the scene as Beard is about to launch his grand solar project in the New Mexico desert. He beseeches Beard for a job, it is denied, whereupon he proceeds to shatter all the project’s solar panels.

As the project collapses, all Beard’s previous flings, lies, failures, heedlessness, gluttonies, and a long threatening melanoma also come crashing down upon him. We get what we deserve, don’t we? As James Baldwin noted “…people pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.”

The life McEwan created for Beard made it impossible for me to appreciate his effort to approach the topic of climate change. McEwan has said, “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with a moral intent.” In my view it fell flat even without such intent. Others have felt the same way.

Walter Kirn in the Times said, “…it’s actually quite bad.” Also in the Times Michiko Kakutani wrote, “…its plot machinery soon starts to run out of gas, sputtering and stalling as it makes its way from one comic set piece to another.” and Solar “…is ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.”

On the other hand, Michael Wood writing in the New York Review of Books thought that even its “…slowness works in the novel’s favor” while Stehan Rahmstorf in the Guardian judged Solar to be “…McEwan at his best.” So it goes among the critics.

In order to enjoy a novel, does its central character need to be lovable or likeable or deserve our sympathy? As I think back upon the novels I have most enjoyed they are always peopled with individuals I admire and respect. While Henry Perowne in McEwan’s Saturday is certainly among them, Michael Beard in Solar is definitely not. I don’t know who admires or respects Michael Beard.

I am not entirely sure why McEwan wrote Solar or why he tackled climate change in such an oblique way. But if he hoped to increase public awareness or change many views on this issue without lecturing , I doubt he succeeded in Solar.


Novels of Ideas

What is a novel of ideas? In the March 6th Wall Street Journal Rebecca Goldstein writes briefly about five examples that she admires—Herzog, Middlemarch, The Holy Sinner, The Black Prince and Einstein’s Dreams. How are these novels distinguished from those that are not?

In writing about Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince she says, “Like all the novels of ideas I admire, this one hides its high purpose under well-developed characters and an organic plot.” She notes that Mann’s The Holy Sinner “buries its seriousness beneath the seductions of story telling.” Hides its high purpose? Buries its seriousness? I think she can be more explicit than that, although in fairness I am sure that was not her purpose in compiling this list.

She says Herzog blends “high-mindedness and low farce” and that George Eliot’s Middlemarch is “imprinted with many of Spinoza’s ideas. Finally she notes that Einstein’s Dreams concerns the nature of time “The play of ideas is heady as Alan Lightman wrests irony, pathos and poetry out of the abstractions of physics…”

On my understanding, a novel of ideas is quite simply a work of fiction that treats the issues normally considered by philosophers, e.g. moral, existential, metaphysical, etc. It is a novel of where issues are raised and questions asked. You reflect on the problems it poses, stop in mid-sentence or at the end of a paragraph to ponder something the author has written or you make a note in the margin or discuss the book’s concerns with another individual. And you do all these things and more with a really notable novel of ideas.

Goldstein’s characterization of Lightman’s novel comes closest to this conception. Yet she never frames her discussion of this novel or any of the four others in terms of how the reader might respond to the ideas or questions in the various ways I’ve indicated. Time. What is time? The abstractions of physics. What are they and is there any hope that I can understand them? Where can I learn more out about them?

Ideas and problems abound in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon and it is why I liked the novel so much. There is very little narrative in this novel and but there are a great many questions, most of them unanswered. In my view this is a novel of ideas at its best and is the heart of the reading experience for me.

In an interview in the latest Paris Review (#192) Ray Bradbury expresses a rather different and to me unusual view. “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas... Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”

Bradbury wonders why this type of novel is so neglected and he gives an example his Fahrenheit 451, a novel I never read but a story I remember vividly in its film version. In talking about the novel he says:

“Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires…and you start him on the adventure of discovery…. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.”

Bradbury’s interview opened my eyes to broader conception of the novel of ideas, one that also includes utopian and dystopian fiction, and to a view of science fiction that I’ve not taken seriously before. In their own way they are just as much novels of ideas as those Goldstein mentions or, indeed, that she writes.