Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paper is a technology, too

I like "technology." I really do. Like a lot of people, I have used/do use Twitter, blogs, web pages, listservs (remember those?), wikis, etc., in classes. For years I've graded papers that never saw a paper version but went from the student's screen to mine and back. I've assigned e-versions of texts. I've cursed at (but used) Blackboard, WebCt, and both homegrown and newer permutations of various CMS platforms.

But you know what? Sometimes paper just works better, and we ought to be able to acknowledge that.

Example: An upcoming conference is making the program available either in e-form or in paper form. I applaud the decision on a conceptual level, but it left me in a dilemma. Since I felt guilty ordering the paper form because of all the green rhetoric surrounding the choice, I ordered the e-version, but who am I kidding? I've tried getting .pdfs on a Blackberry screen, and even if the document doesn't fail to download and go into a holding pattern, which it does about 90% of the time, the print is too tiny to read.

What I'll probably do is print some pages before I go, but I'd really rather have a booklet so that I can mark the sessions in case I change my mind later. I won't know where I'm going at the conference, but at least I won't have a conference program that pegs me as a Despoiler of the Earth.

Example: In class, if a student does a presentation with a bibliography or questions written out, handing that out on a piece of paper allows the class to follow along. Telling them "go to the class wiki and comment there" doesn't have nearly the immediacy that I want for the discussion that's supposed to follow. And not everyone has a laptop/netbook/iPhone to be able to look at the presentation materials online, either. Paper's the logical choice here.

Example: I've noticed when reading double-spaced manuscripts or papers online, "page down" or the equivalent doesn't always drop you onto the next line from the one you're reading. I have to take a couple of seconds to find my place, which means my engagement with the ideas keeps getting interrupted. I've tried to compensate for this in various ways--making the font smaller, etc.--but the fact remains that it would be easier to read some of these things on paper, even though I don't always print them out.

One example of times when I don't want to print: Invitations to meetings (and I use the term loosely) now sometimes come with a raft of .pdf documents attached and an instruction to print them out before the meeting. Uh, no. That's not part of the deal. My home printer is not at your service. In these cases, I exercise my Thoreau-given right to civil disobedience and bring the laptop with me to the meeting with the documents loaded on it. There's no reason why I should subsidize the university's printing costs.

Another thing about administrators and technology: even though I like technology, it seems wrong to me that administrators are so dead keen on it that they care less about how it's used than if it's used. Faculty are now evaluated in part on whether they use technology or not (see The Chronicle for tsk-tsking about the sad sacks who don't), and I think it's because administrators are entranced by the shiny and in love with anything they can name and count. Good teaching = can't be counted except by student evals. Teaching with technology = something to count.

Back to paper. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are all kinds of technologies that we can choose from, and we shouldn't shy away from paper if it's the best one.*
[*Edited because the former ending made it sound as though someone was forcing me not to use paper, and that's not what I meant.]


Ink said...


Esp. about the conference information. Last one I went to was all online and I know I missed a bunch of stuff because I never got through the whole listing (and they didn't have crossrefs of people or topics). Was mad about that. Would have been willing to recycle the paper afterwards!!!

Ink said...

I mean the session lists were online. Not the actual conference.

undine said...

I'm glad it's not just me, Ink. It's too bad they didn't have cross-references, but even so, without paper it would have been tough to see everything. I think I'm going to regret my eco-guilt in choosing the e-version.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for paper. And it's renewable and recyclable.

Anonymous said...

I serve as chair of the Environmental Studies Department at a large SLAC and we use a lot of paper. Our students go not bring laptops to class, so even though we distribute a lot of readings via .pdf we expect they will print them. Paper is indeed portable, user-updatable, and field reconfigurable in ways that other technology is not.

One thing we try to teach our students is to critically examine their consumption choices. There are many reasons to prefer paper for things like class handouts, written work, etc. I would argue that conference programs, however, are an example of something that *should* be sent electronically...even if you end up printing it out you are at least eliminating the footprint of shipping & distributing a paper copy (which likely would have been printed in color on slick paper as well).

The bottom line for me is to insist on 100% post-consumer recycled paper, to reuse as much of that paper as possible, and to recycle at the end. But eliminating paper in favor of a more expensive and arguably more resource-intensive electronic technology is not the sort of decision that should be made without long and careful examination of the costs and benefits of each.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Anon., and helpful.

undine said...

Very interesting, Anon, and thanks for those comments. I like the idea that you're making the paper do as much work as possible both before and after it's used for your purposes (post consumer before, recycled later).