Saturday, October 4, 2014

Giles was right

One day in the fall of 1997 during my first semester of law school, I was standing in my parents’ kitchen while taking a break from reading casebooks. I was channel surfing on a small television that my mom kept in the cabinet above the refrigerator, and stumbled upon the show that Entertainment Weekly would soon label the best on television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (DVDs available here.) Back in 1997, the internet was just coming into its own, and the episode’s subtext was a debate between the stuffy, stuck-in-his-ways school librarian Mr. Giles, and the hip, sexy computer science teacher Ms. Calendar. Ms. Calendar was trying to convince Giles that books were a thing of the distant past and that information shouldn’t be bound-up, but instead should be virtual. Giles disagreed. 

Giles contended that knowledge gained from a computer screen was too fleeting, and had no texture or context. He argued that the learning process should be more tangible in order for the information to mean something and to stick with us.

Being buried in case law at the time, I completely agreed with Giles. I was certainly free to read the assigned cases on a computer screen — back in those days LexisNexis had a piece of software that you could load onto your computer and then use to access case law through your dial-up internet connection. But the alternative to this high-tech approach was reading the case in the casebook (or, after locating a case on LexisNexis, printing it and reading the hardcopy). This paper-based method allowed me to easily flip back-and-forth from case to case, underline parts of the text, and, most importantly, write down my thoughts in the margins.

And now, nearly twenty years later, a number of studies show that reading digitally — e.g., on a laptop or one of those annoyingly trendy iPads — results in significantly worse comprehension than reading from a book. The reason is that reading a physical book engages other senses, places the information in context, and solidifies the learning process.

Hmm. That research finding sounds oddly similar to Giles’ argument in 1997.    

So what’s the lesson in all of this? When a stodgy, British, tweed-wearing librarian talks about things like books, reading, and learning, it’s best to turn off the computer — or as he called it, “the idiot box” — and listen to what he has to say.

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