Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age. University of Alberta Press
The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press and
Facing an increasingly corporate—and some would argue depersonalized—university world, English professors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber propose a “counter-identity” for academics whose achievements are being measured and rewarded by their outputs and tangential contributions to research at the expense of intellectual development and community engagement. The authors argue that power in academic circles has shifted from faculty to administrators in pursuit of a competitive bottom line for the institution. Berg and Seeber bemoan days spent taking care of administrative tasks—such as emailing, record-keeping, or mastering a new technological advancement—instead of being a “Slow Professor,” an academic who takes time “for reflection and open-ended inquiry,” research, and thesis development within a library environment. Their redefinition of academic pursuit implies a revisioning of the traditional idea of time, whereby “time to do nothing” does not imply wasted time, but rather a space that allows for creativity and playfulness. Such positivity might then translate into a classroom environment where professors who enjoy teaching create a ripple effect in their students, who in turn feel valued by and connected to their instructor. The authors then give some suggestions to achieve more engaged teaching, such as displaying confidence from the start of the class, controlling breathing, encouraging laughter, listening, and pacing the dispersal of material. Their recommendations align with the idea of pedagogy as performance, whereby the instructor has to be constantly attuned to his or her audience, and ready to respond and shift according to the information he or she is receiving from the class. In essence, the Slow Professor approaches his or her classes as places of engagement, trusted spaces in which students feel their opinions can be safely expressed and valued. Berg and Seeber also argue for the return of such a collegial critical-thinking environment at the faculty level, where “corporatization has imposed an instrumental view of not only time but also each other.” They note that the need to account for each hour of time expended creates a climate of isolation and inhibits community building and collaboration.
Berg and Seeber bring up timely issues that should be taken into account as the university model transitions to meet the new demands of corporatized and digital environments. However, the new academic environment also includes a significant number of precariously employed instructors who are teaching part-time or as sessionals. Berg and Seeber mention these academics in passing, but their intriguing manifesto would benefit from an additional in-depth look at how the attitudes of the Slow Professor can be practically and purposefully applied by academics in both tenured and non-tenure track positions.
Creative writer Lynn Coady discusses the impact of the digital age on reading, a foundation of academic practice in the humanities. She argues for the relevance of books “as we know them” as repositories and vehicles for transmitting stories, for encouraging imaginative and critical thought, and for creating human connections. She begins her argument by acknowledging the fragility of the book industry and of book authors fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of television writers, bloggers, and social media users. Her concern centres on fear over the loss of books in their current form due to “declining attention spans, plummeting book sales, disappearing bookstores, [and] embattled publishing houses.” She also acknowledges the escapism pervasive in today’s popular literature, where “serious” books are too exhausting for harried and stressed readers to delve into at the day’s end. Yet, her counterargument to the prevalence of escapist audiences, who prefer to see film adaptations rather than read the original books, is that serious readers are a hardy group who will not, and historically have not, disappeared with the advent of new technologies. She notes that there is an increase in library users, which means that readers still crave human contact and the tactile experience of a paper book. Coady reminisces over the rituals surrounding book reading and its immediate gratification that are not elitist, but rather universal. Readers love the heft and weight of a paper book, the anticipation of seeing a new stack of books to be read on a night table, and the sensual pleasure that is evoked by reading, which cannot be matched by Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, or web surfing. Her argument thus focuses ultimately on the “utter mental absorption we experience when we read a written narrative,” the sense of immersion that a good story can give a reader.
While Coady does well to start and end Who Needs Books? with an example of a children’s book to signal the need to instill a consistent reading practice from an early age, the parents of future children are today’s reluctant readers of books. How can these non-book readers be taught to embrace all the joys that she so passionately advocates for in her essay? Coady has gone beyond answering her title question by also addressing why we need books. The next step is to figure out how this need can be met, and how concrete measures can be implemented to ensure the love of the physical book does not become an experience of the few, but a shared, community-building exercise for the many.