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In Praise of Paper

posted: 9.18.13 by Nedra Reynolds

For a few years now, the start of the semester has signaled a time to try a new tool or a different technology.  To inaugurate a new term, I have adopted new-to-me options on Sakai, have ordered software packages from publishing companies, or have experimented with apps and Web 2.0 sites to engage students.  I have tried a number of online peer review tools, as I’ve written about before here on Bits.

I have also tried, besides Sakai, two or three other course management systems and, within those, have appreciated functions ranging from assignments to bulletin boards, reminders or announcements, as well as the gradebook features.  I cannot imagine ever teaching again without a laptop or iPad:  to project slides, show video clips, or share something from a webpage. I adore Evernote™ and any system that syncs across my various devices.  When I bought a Kindle™ in 2008, I received a message thanking me for being an “early adopter,” and I spent a couple of years reading only digital books, delighting in the immediacy of the downloads and in the convenience for travel.  This is all just to say that I’m no Luddite.  In fact, I can’t imagine how any professional, especially in higher education, could avoid or resist all of the technologies that are now embedded into our daily working lives.

But as this semester begins, my new/old tool is paper.  Pen and paper.  More often.  Writing by hand, using strokes instead of clicks and taps.  Reading real books, the kind with spines and ink.  And using lots of post-it notes!  In different colors!

In all-digital, all-the-time experience, there was something missing for me; I missed the smell of pages and the sound of turning them.  I did not seem to enacting literacy or making anything.  There’s a physical connection between bodies and the wood pulp or metal or plastic that makes up the (old-fashioned) tools of writing–one that digital production cannot mimic or replace.  Sometimes my brain just needs the slower pace of a pen on paper or the feel of turning pages to absorb the meaning.

And this move has been prompted in part by my students, who usually ask for paper!  Whenever I poll them–“do you want the syllabus as a handout?”–the overwhelming response is YES.  They like getting the assignments on paper, and I still (occasionally) collect in-class writing on pages with messy spiral edges.

I do not think digital natives have embraced electronic environments the way some educators assume they have.  While they are at home with social media and games, my guess is that they prefer textbooks and syllabi and assignments in a tangible, tactile form–and I completely understand how learners might feel more in command of material when they have a highlighter in their hands and pages to turn.

So to kick off Fall 2013, I did some consumer-driven online research (of course!) and then treated myself to some new notebooks, highly recommended by paper aficionados.  (I didn’t buy any new pens because I have at least 49 of them around the house anyway—not to mention all those at the office and in the car and hiding in backpacks).  But for the first time in some years, I am writing more with a pen and paper, and all of my reading for pleasure recently has been magazines that come in the mail or books that I purchased at an independent neighborhood bookstore.

I will still get excited to see an app that promises to make my teaching life “easier” or keep me more organized, but I still love paper.

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