01 May 2014

Longhand reading

Since my family's return to Seattle five months ago, we've noticed all kinds of differences and similarities between our brief French life and our American one.  (See The big (and) easy, 11 Dec. 2013, for some of those initial discoveries.)  More recently, I've noticed how tethered I've become to my smart devices, and how that has affected my concentration and memory.  Because I'm now in the same time zone as my students and colleagues, their emails bombard my various inboxes in real time all day long.  I am jumpier and reactive and spend little time reflecting.  By the next day, if I haven't taken notes about what I did or with whom, I forget some of the more mundane interactions and transactions of the previous days.  Similar effects are now being documented by the scientific community, such as the one about note taking.  UCLA psychologists have found that students who take notes longhand have much better retention and more sophisticated understanding of what they are learning than those that take notes onto their laptops or tablets. The latter mode tends to discourage students from engaging actively with the ideas but promotes instead the tendency to just transcribe word-for-word what is being presented.  (See Barbash, Fred. April 28, 2014. "Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes" Morning Mix. The Washington Post.)

For me, the more laborious, tactile, longhand approach also applies to reading.  In France, I read a lot of books, magazines, newspapers, usually in print, in French, English, Finnish.  Aix-en-Provence is a bookish town, and we were surrounded by bookstores, even a well-stocked English-language one. We bought books in London, in Helsinki, and occasionally, supplemented with orders to Amazon.uk.   A few times during our French sojourn, I used my ipad and the Barnes and Noble nook store to order and read some books for an Anglophone book group I had joined and during our final months in France when I did not want to add any more books to the numbers of boxes we were shipping back.  It is those books that I read electronically that I can scarcely remember.  For example, this past fall I read two such books on the ipad that I remember finding riveting and sociologically relevant but that I did not remember to add to my blog's book list.  I recently found the books again while idly tapping on my device and now I have had to skim them in order to refresh my memory. I believe my forgetfulness is partly due to the lack of my physical engagement with either book.  I saw the covers perhaps once, when I opened the books electronically initially, but the physical books were never lying around on my bedside table or on a chair so I do not have a very strong visual memory of them.  And with e-books, flipping pages and re-reading a passage or section, or skimming is awkward so I don't engage much in these ways.  It's no wonder Appassionata by Hoffman and Ousby's Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-44 both slipped out of my mind entirely: I simply had not had a 'longhand' reading experience with them.  Touching the physical book DOES matter to me, sometimes, however quaint this sounds.  (Mireille Silcoff writes about this quaintness amid the death and fetishization of books in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine. The online article is titled and dated: "On Their Death Bed, Physical Books Have Finally Become Sexy." Riff column, Apr. 25, 2014.  The picture on this post shows my color-coordinated but unsexy bookshelf of some of my English language reading over the past few years, and a small piece of the Berlin Wall that I brought home in 1990.)  I certainly read work documents, student work, and journal articles online regularly, but it seems that depending upon what I'm reading, the tangible physical experience may matter.  An academic journal article doesn't come with a great deal of visual 'personality' so reading it online doesn't change my experience much, but reading a book, a popular magazine, and even a newspaper is a much more colorful and lively experience when it's in my hand and I can feel the pages.  If that makes me fusty, then I embrace that characteristic.  Now my challenge is to keep finding those physical books and print media: one unfortunate discovery since my return to Seattle is that the local shopping center no longer has a single bookstore!

1 comment:

Aixcentric said...

I completely agree about physical books being more memorable and meaningful than reading e-versions. I tend to write all over them too!
In terms of note taking, I did a course on m ind-mapping which Influenced me lots. Just drawing connections and grouping concepts really reinforces the content. I use it all the time.