On the Interwebz: Ye Olde Course Packet is Dead

Yesterday, in my “Reading and Writing in Renaissance England” seminar, we spent an hour and a half discussing the internet while Yale’s first edition quarto of “Henry V” sat on the table in front of us and stared menacingly. Its anthropomorphic anger seemed directed not at us — even though we were neglecting our usual discussion of early XVIIth century printing practices — but at the equally non-human internet. Maybe this was all just a sleep deprived hallucination, but “Henry V”’s vellum-bound scowl made sense as the humans in the room kept talking about how the internet was going to destroy it — or rather books in general. (Okay, I may be paraphrasing. Please don’t read this column, Professor Kastan.)

It’s not a brand-new theory — people have been freaking out about the digital vs. printed text question for a while now. (My take is that it all started when Katie Couric asked for comments via e-mail rather than letter during that Today Show segment back in 1994.) And it’s not an irrelevant theory, either. Until I got a computer, I used to stay up past my bedtime because I was hiding under the cover with a flashlight so I could finish the latest edition of “The Baby-Sitter’s Club.” Now I could — if I chose — stay up reading “Baby-Sitter’s Club” fanfic, online. The screen would provide its own light, and I wouldn’t have to worry about flashlight batteries or dwell on my lost dignity.

I’m going to skip over the breakdown of the digital vs. the physical, because both sides make GREAT points and I’m also afraid that my professor is totally reading this and I’ll get it all wrong. Besides, choosing either digital or printed text to the complete exclusion of the other would be hypocritical: I’m the first person to say embarrassing things about the delicious “New Book Smell,” but I also do about 90 percent of my reading online.

That 90 percent, however, includes some things I wish it didn’t, which brings me to my angry assertion of the day: despite what I just said about not choosing sides, I’m pretty sure that the decline of the traditional course packet is ruining EVERYTHING.

Now, I used to complain about having to pay for $80 course packets at Tyco, just like everyone else did. I rejoiced the first time a professor explained that, rather than assign a course packet, they would upload all the readings and we’d do them online. Then I actually tried to do those readings and realized just how very screwed I was. I couldn’t underline, the digital equivalent of highlighting was completely useless, and Facebook was one click away for whenever I had a moment of boredom. The last one might just be a personal weakness, but the first two are presumably pretty universal — and the only way to solve them is to print the damn thing out, which negates the “better for the environment” argument.

I never print anything out, of course, because I’m far too lazy — I mean (whoops), because I totally love STEP and all that it stands for. Really, though: I never print them out, and then I try to read them on the computer, and I absorb pretty much nothing. We talked about this phenomenon recently in “Reading and Writing in Renaissance England:” there’s something about the process of close reading, that concept so dear to the Yale English Department’s heart, that’s fundamentally damaged by scrolling down text on a screen.

A story: a professor once assigned an obscure and out-of-print edition of Wordsworth for a poetry class I took. The heavily used copy I bought had margins entirely filled with careful, insightful notes made by some intrepid student years ago. My comments that semester were unusually intelligent — don’t tell — but more than that, every time I opened that book I was faced with concrete visual evidence of the very time-honored tradition of scholarship that “Major English Poets” was working so hard to instill in me.

That was a book, of course, not a course packet. But as much as I love the ease and accessibility of online reading for pleasure, I worry that before long, English students will be reading Wordsworth on a PDF — that the decline of the course packet is only the beginning, and all the notes I’ve scribbled in margins and sold back to the Yale Book Store over the years will waste away, unseen, as the students of the future scroll down their PDFs, oblivious.

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