When Will Kindles Be Ready for the University Classroom?

English: Amazon Kindle DX Graphite displaying ...

Amazon Kindle DX Graphite displaying Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have said before that my research is still largely paper-based and that I use my Kindle exclusively for pleasure reading.  This isn’t entirely true: I do use a combo of Mendeley and Evernote on my iPad for journal articles.  However, the fact remains that my primary texts are just about always of the paper and cloth variety.    As a new academic year rolls around, I can’t help but wonder how much longer that will be the case, and how long it will be before I am teaching to a classroom full of Kindle-holders.  When will an instruction such as “turn to page 34” consist of more button-tapping than page-turning?

A great number of the novels that I regularly teach are now out of copyright–including James Joyce, who has been out of copyright for a full 9 months –and are available widely and freely in a number of eReader formats.  Having an entire semester’s reading list on one device would undoubtedly have a great many benefits: an unanticipated seminar tangent could be taken even further if all the students were able to quickly turn to the book that we were discussing; annotations and marginalia could be shared between all the members of the class, creating a real community of learning.  And it seems, leaving my love of paper and print culture aside, that a classroom full of Kindles linked to Twitter could, perhaps, create a positive impact on my learning and teaching.

But there are, of course, still enough disadvantages to ignore this as a possibility for at least the coming year.  Apart from the logistics of getting a classroom full of Kindles (it would would likely take a department-wide initiative at this stage), there are still two key concerns I have.  The first is that, although many of the books that I teach are freely available on Project Gutenberg or even from the Kindle store itself, they are very often slapdash scans or imports that wouldn’t be especially helpful in the undergraduate classroom.  Apart from the strange formatting and missing letters (I am now reading one such book for pleasure which skips the second “l” when two appear in a row), they lack the helpful apparatus that academics are used to and often rely on:  introductions, notes, biographies, bibliographies, etc.  Of course, scholarly editions of these texts from publishers such as Norton and the OUP are becoming more widely available for eReaders, but that then undermines the benefit of having students invest in one piece of kit for access to innumerable books for free.

The bigger concern that I have is the same one that prevents me from using eBooks in my research: there is as-yet no effective to cite them.  Both APA and MLA recommend profoundly inelegant ways for citing eBooks, from citing “Chapter #, Paragraph #, Sentence #” (sounds thrilling) to simply appending “Kindle edition” to the end of the citation.  One website tries to solve the problem by offering a laughably imprecise form to convert Kindle location numbers to print edition page numbers.  Obviously none of these methods are ideal for professional academic criticism, nor should they be widely used in the undergraduate classroom.

There is already clear, logical, and effective guidance on how to cite tweets, which are increasingly cropping up in literary and cultural criticism.  But there still doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive way to use eReaders in academic writing or in literature classroom.  While it seems like the tipping point for eReaders has definitely come in society as a whole, there is likely still some time before they become widely used in the literature classroom.  Even once the confusion with citations is cleared up (and it doubtlessly will be very soon), I expect that we will still face a reluctance from many academics to move to the digital format.  The physicality of the book is, of course, a key part of what we study and what we teach–but certainly the physicality of eBooks needs to play an increasingly visible role in English literature departments.

Have you used eReaders successfully in your research and teaching?  How did you overcome the last few hurdles that prevent many from adopting eBooks in the classroom? 

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