In a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, Niccolo Machiavelli describes a typical day of his life while in exile—his punishment for conspiring against the Medici in Florence. At night, Machiavelli would retire to his study and immerse himself in the works of ancient political theorists: “…for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them.” If Machiavelli were reading in 2014 instead of 1513, would he still be able to maintain his focus with social media competing for his attention?
Reading practices are changing now that personal correspondence, news, and scholarly articles are more likely to be delivered to our screens than our mailboxes. While there are good reasons to take a “Machiavellian” approach to reading (as opposed to politics!) by minimizing distractions and engrossing oneself in a physical book, it’s also worth exploring the potential benefits of electronic texts in getting students excited about reading and enabling them to share this experience with their instructors and peers. As a Digital Initiatives fellow I experiment with allowing students to use electronic versions of the primary sources I assign in my Introduction to Political Theory course, which I offer every semester. One of the learning goals of this course is to teach students how to engage in close readings of challenging texts. In the past I’ve tried to accomplish this by modeling it in the classroom and assessing it in written assignments, but this does not give me a sense of how students actually engage in the process of reading. The ability of some e‐book devices to allow users to share highlighted passages and notes with others could provide additional insight into how students grapple with difficult texts. Moreover, the possibility of instantly sharing an interesting passage with their classmates via Facebook, Twitter, or book-oriented social media sites such as Goodreads generates greater enthusiasm for reading amongst students because it is seen less as a solitary activity and more as an opportunity to connect with their peers.
Allowing students to read assigned texts in the format of their choosing raises several questions. Will it be more difficult for the class to literally be on the same page when discussing an important passage? Will students using e‐book devices and tablets be tempted to use them for other purposes in class, resulting in decreased engagement? Will issues of economic inequality emerge if some students bring the latest iPads and Kindles into the classroom whereas other students continue to read used copies of books that have already been marked up by others? I hope to have the opportunity to discuss these questions and more with faculty in other disciplines as well as educational technology support staff.