Excerpt from Arnold Sanders, “The Death of the Editor and Printer: Teaching Early Modern Publishing Practices to Internet-Raised Undergraduates.”  Book chapter for Teaching Early Modern Literature from the Archives.  Heidi Brayman Hackel and Ian Moulton, eds.  Accepted by MLA Press for 2012 publication.


            Because students now learn to read and write online, their habits of mind lead to profound changes in their metaliteracy skills (Foster and Gibbons, Schirato and Webb, Lotherington).  Most current undergraduates have never known an era when they did not create and read documents on computers, using keyboards and mice instead of a hand-held pen on paper pages, scrolling through digital text more often than turning paper leaves.  They have adapted to a digital reading environment that sixth graders have described as visually “painful”; eighth graders in the same study think online reading is normal, suggesting rapid adaptation reading habits to the new medium’s constraints (Agee and Altariba 386).  Young readers learn to expend a lot of mental energy navigating hyperlinked documents that print authors would have organized for them (Kress 162).  Cognitive studies of online readers reveal that they read more slowly on the screen than they do on printed pages, perceiving as “long texts” documents that print readers perceive as moderate or short (Dillon cited in Schneider, “Hypertext” 200).  As readers approach the screen’s bottom edge, connections can be lost between sentences or paragraphs above and below, creating anxiety and reducing perceived textual coherence (Dobson and Miall quoted in Schneider, “Hypertext” 201).  Online readers also may have less ability to empathically identify with fictional characters (Schneider “Toward,” Schneider “Hypertext” 202-3).

            The greatest reading effects of this new textual world arise from students’ overwhelming preference for digital over paper texts (Carlson, McClure and Clink 126-8).  As early as 2001, David Miall warned us of the “spurious interdisciplinarity” that online readers risk (1412, but see also Foltz 117-18 and 128-9).  Student writers may cite more varied sources because of easier access rather than because they genuinely understand the diverse disciplinary practices grounding sources’ arguments.  Digitally accessed scholarly texts also hide the supporting apparatus of expert knowledge, social structures that print readers encounter in the front matter of scholarly journals, in editors’ and authors’ prefaces, and in the evidence of peer-reviewing. 

            In addition, students are increasingly unsure about what constitutes a “source.”  In a study by Nancy Foster at the University of Rochester, students tended to identify “sources” as documents, whereas faculty members identified “sources” as people who created the documents (“Understanding”).  My own undergraduate students sometimes identify search engines such as JSTOR or Google as “sources.”  Although students still appear to respect printed books, their familiarity with them and their ability to estimate sources’ relative authority seem to have declined over the past decade (McClure and Clink; Imler and Hall; Carlson). Like shoppers who expect eggs to come from Styrofoam cartons instead of hens, students increasingly expect articles and electronic books to arrive through a search window, a delivery mechanism that isolates the text from evidence of its production by a human mind with scholarly training, peers who care about that mind’s training and accuracy, and editors who repair its mistakes.  This may be the real “death of the author,” which Roland Barthes announced, satirically, in 1967/8, and it also may herald the demise of editors and printers in students’ perceptions of textual accuracy and authority. 


Works Cited

Agee, Jane and Jeanette Altarriba, "Changing Conceptions and Use of Computer Technologies in the Everyday Literacy Practices of Sixth and Seventh Graders," Research in Teaching English 43:4 (May 2009) 363-96.  Web.

Barthes, Roland.  “The Death of the Author.”  Aspen 5-6:3  Rpt. in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath.  N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 1977.  Print.  Available on Web at   http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes

Carlson, Jake.  “An Examination of Undergraduate Student Citation Behavior.”  The Journal of Academic Librarianship.  32:1 (January 2006) 14-22. EbscoHost. Web.

Dillon, Andrew.  “Reading from Paper versus Screens: A Critical Review of the Empirical Literature.”  Ergonomics 35 (1992).  1297-1326.  Print.

Foster, Nancy Fried.  “Understanding the Behaviors of Researchers and Students: An Anthropologist’s Approach.”  The Architecture of Knowledge: How Research Programs and New Courses Are Built.  CLIR 2007 Sponsors’ Symposium.  12 December 2007.  Print.

-------- and Susan Gibbons, Eds. (2007) Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. Chicago: ACRL, 2007.  Available http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlpubs/

Imler, Bonnie, and Russell A. Hall.  “Full-Text Articles: Faculty Perceptions, Student Use, and Citation Abuse.”  Reference Services and Sources.  37:1 (May 2008) 65-72.  EbscoHost.  Web. 

Kress, Gunther.  Literacy in the New Media Age.  N.Y.: Routledge, 2003.  Print.

Lotherington, Heather.  “Emergent Metaliteracies: What the Xbox has to Offer the EQAO.”  Linguistics and Education 14: 3-4 (Winter 2003) 305-19.  Web.

McClure, Randall, and Kellian Clink.  “How Do You Know That?: An Investigation of Student Research Practices in the Digital Age.”  Libraries and the Academy.  9:1 (2009) 115-32. EbscoHost. Web.

Miall, David.  “The Library versus the Internet: Literary Studies under Siege?”  PMLA 116:5 (Oct., 2001) 1405-14.

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb.  Understanding the Visual.  London: SAGE, 2004.  Print.

Schneider, Ralf.  “Hypertext Narrative and the Reader: A View from Cognitive Theory.  European Journal of English Studies.  9:2  (August 2005) 197-208.  Print.

--------.  “Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literary Character: The Dynamics of Mental-Model Construction.”  Style 35 (2001) 607-40.  Print.