Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010


with 3 comments

by Weiner

I opened The New Yorker this week to find myself staring at an Asian boy holding aloft his latest math assignment, proudly displaying his A+ grade (playing on a stereotype to be sure, but not necessarily a bad one). The image was an ad for Domtar, as part of their Paperbecause campaign. The slogan underneath the banner reads “it’s easier to learn on paper” and the little blurb at the bottom informs us:

Reading on paper is 10-30% faster than reading online, plus reviewing notes and highlights is significantly more effective. See, you just learned something.

I have no idea whether this is true or not. I could go to their website and look at all the studies they show, but I doubt I’d be any closer to the truth. In my experience, however, paper is better. When I edit my work, I like to print it out and go over it with a pen. I find that I catch more mistakes this way and get a better sense of the whole piece’s structure, and also which sentences worked and which ones didn’t (notice all the typos in my blog posts).

I remember a conversation I had with a fellow grad student a couple of years ago, a well-intentioned environmentalist type. I complained about shlepping a bunch of students’ papers home with me, and he told me how he had all his students email their assignments in to him, and grades them on the screen.

HIM: It’s much easier on your back.

ME: Yeah, but I really prefer grading on the page. Besides, I stare at a computer screen all day. It hurts my eyes.

HIM: That’s why you need one of those giant monitors, to make the text really big. It’s great.

ME: Yeah, but there’s something about holding the actual documents that I like. It’s the same reason I like archives.

Our conversation ended there. I could see he was disappointed. He was obviously trying to get me to be more environmentally conscious, and I was being resistant for what may seem like stupid reasons.

It’s no secret that historians love paper. Luce directed me to this amusing but paranoid critique of the Kindle, but my fear is not of Orwellian control over what we read, but over the disappearance of actual books, you know, the objects with spines and covers and printed words on pages that you turn.

I’m no Luddite. I love my Kindle. I got it for my birthday a couple years ago and use it exclusively for pleasure reading, mostly on the subway. I know you can take notes in it, but I don’t. It’s a great thing to have at airports especially, when you remember the book you’ve always wanted to read and you just buy it then and there and read it on the plane.

But I would hate for books to disappear entirely, and I so I would say the same about paper. I love musty old documents in archives, but I also love newspapers and magazines. When I hear things like the New York Times is going to be entirely digital in a couple years, my heart sinks, even though I read the paper almost exclusively on-line. And when you go pro-paper, the environmentalists get on your case. That’s never really been my cause celebre. I think stopping global warming and preserving the Rain Forest and keeping our water clean is important. I just don’t get that worked up about it.

Also, it seems like Domtar’s shtick is that they are being environmentally friendly. Recyclable and all that jazz. I have no expertise in this area, so no way of knowing whether it’s better for our planet to be paperless or paper-full. But I do know that I’m going to keep telling my students to hand in hard copies of their work for as long as I can.


Written by David Weinfeld

November 16, 2010 at 12:23

3 Responses

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  1. Agreed. I still print out lots of academic papers because I only so much capacity for staring at a computer screen during the day, and I’ve tried a lot of alternatives.


    November 16, 2010 at 13:10

  2. I much prefer editing on paper and I really love reading academic papers that have been printed out. I get tired of looking at a screen all day long. But if I’m pressed for time and for sake of speed I’ll read academic papers on screen. But I really don’t like it and it’s not the same.


    November 22, 2010 at 01:47

  3. I truly think paper is better. I found a paper that Xerox Parc did on all the cognitive functions that physical paper supports, much of it turned on how being able to physically organize papers in space helped immensely with memory rentention and understanding. And keep in mind this was Xerox Parc trying to get a handle on the functionality that electronic replacements for paper would need to address.


    November 29, 2010 at 18:14

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