Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr

Steven Volk, March 1, 2015

Some years ago for another “Article of the Week” (Sept. 24, 2012, to be exact), I wrote about the challenge we face deciding how much reading to assign. I thought about it again in light of an eye-opening article by Naomi S. Baron in the Chronicle of Higher Education (February 13, 2015). It was mysteriously titled, “The Plague of tl;dr.”  Obviously, I had to read it since I had no idea what it was about. [If you don’t subscribe to the Chronicle, the link might not work and you’ll need to go through the library’s website or that of your own institution.] Guesses? According the Urban Dictionary, “tl;dr” means “too long; didn’t read.” It’s used in snarky riposte to someone who, according to the grumbler, has gone on too long in a blog post. As in: “tl;dr…why dont you give up on your unabridged edition of War and Peace or at least stop posting it here?” Zing.


“Reading,” Lucas absent pour le moment mais reviens bientôt (CC)

When I posted my own (way tl;dr) article in 2012, it was in response to the hand-wringing that accompanied the publication of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). The authors argued, briefly, that student aren’t learning what they should in college and much of this is due to the fact that they aren’t writing enough, thinking enough, or reading enough. As an example, the authors found that 32% of students do not take any course in a semester with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week. Academically Adrift does raise a lot of concerns, but one question I still have is what, exactly, to make of their evidence. Should we be happy that nearly 70% of the students are taking courses with more reading? Are the 32% of the “light-reading” courses in the sciences, math, poetry, creative writing, studio art, etc? And finally, for the purpose of this discussion, do we have any research to suggest that more is better?


“Into the Reading,” (CC)

My own recommendations for how much reading one should assign came with a set of questions to answer before selecting readings for the syllabus:

(1) What do you want the reading to do? Is reading assigned as a background that will inform the week’s lectures but won’t be directly discussed in class? Is it expected to generate class discussion? Should students be reading for detail or for narrative argument? The amount of reading you assign needs to be associated with what you want it to accomplish.

(2) What role does reading itself play in your course? Is the production of effective reading strategies one of the learning goals in your course?

(3) Does the amount of reading we assign bear any resemblance to the sort of reading we do for pleasure or for our own work, or are we loading it on for other purposes? Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore historian, observed that we often assign more than anyone, let alone an undergraduate, could possibly read in any “normal” fashion. Could less be more?

(4) Do we expect novices to be experts when we assign reading? Our students have had a lot of practice reading, but not necessarily in our disciplinary fields, and not necessarily good practice. They often don’t know how to read appropriately what we have assigned them. One of the reasons we have made it to where we are is because we learned to how skim when we can and dig in when we need to. Novice readers in our fields often don’t know how to skim, or rather, they think that skimming means making sure their eyes “touch” each word but at a quicker rate than regular reading.

(5) How can we help students be better readers? In “Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the Construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep Learning in Sociology Courses” [Teaching Sociology 36:2 (April 2008)], Judith C. and Keith A. Roberts offer a number of suggestions:

  • Connecting to the text—Underlining key ideas and making marks and comments in the margins. Students are encouraged to go back through the reading and write five “big” questions on key concepts in the chapter. They can then answer some of those questions or write a commentary on why they think these are the core issues in the reading.
  • Summarizing the readings and visualizing the key ideas—Summarizing the reading by using visual or graphic approaches, charts, lists, etc.
  • Reading response journal—Each portion of the reading assignment is responded to with a question or comment.
  • Studying as a group—Two or three students discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts. Ideas are recorded and then written up.

6) Are we aware of the academic calendar when we assign readings? Longer readings that most students will complete when assigned in the first few weeks of class or right after spring break will remain (largely) unread as mid-terms or finals approach.


Main Reading Room, NY Public Library. Wally Gobetz (CC)


But what if technology is interfering with how (and how much) our students are reading? Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University, questions how students’ digital reading habits impact their overall (non-digital as well as digital) reading strategies. As she writes, “When reading on-screen, we can rapidly click or scroll our way from page to page within a document. We are able to connect with the outside world, to hop from site to site, to multitask. Sustained concentration, analysis, and rereading are not encouraged.” The screen is great for searching, skimming, and for shorter pieces not necessarily meant for deep thinking. But digital reading might be getting in the way of the kinds of reading we assign to our students.

Baron summarizes research that suggests, on average, readers in the U.S. spend about 72 seconds on a web page, but almost half just spent 12 seconds or less. The point is not whether one should be spending more time deciding whether the dress was white and gold or blue and black. The point is that students (actually, all of us) are re-learning how to read because of these practices.

Digital reading is not the same as other reading: it doesn’t occur on a (slower) word-by-word fashion or even a (faster) skimming approach where experts know how to jump over sections. Digital reading is reading by scanning. Eye-tracking studies by Jakob Nielsen of on-line reading habits have found that web-reading takes place in an F pattern. Readers start in the upper left-hand corner and move across to the end of the first line. As they go down, their eyes soon only alight on the left-hand side. Our students are learning to “power browse” on-line, something quite different than either deep reading or informed skimming. (And content providers are learning to place their content right smack in those “F” areas.)


F-Shaped On-Line Reading Pattern

Baron argues further that “reading on-screen is encouraging a ‘snippet’ approach to the written word,” fostering what she calls “reading on the prowl.” Digital marketers are now catering to this by producing shorter-and-shorter versions of books. This is not the Reduced Shakespeare Company offering (as comedy) the complete works of Shakespeare in 97 minutes, or even Sparknotes or other (ahem) “study guides.” This is Blinklist which advertises itself as “Your personal reading assistant. We read over 1,000 books per year for you and provide you with the most important facts – so you can do more, earn more and be more. All by spending less time reading…Get key insights from the world’s best business books in 15-minute, made-for-mobile reads. Available for iOS, Android, and the web.” Now there’s a lesson for our students: earn more by spending less time reading!

(Baron also suggests the various ways that new reading styles and economic pressures on scholarly publishers are pushing down the length of manuscripts that academic presses will even consider, but that’s worth another article.)

It’s worth citing Baron’s conclusion at length: “Settling into a book affords us opportunities to contemplate, compare perspectives, wander the lives of others, and to wonder. If in our courses we condone replacing full-fledged texts with shorter versions, what message are we sending students about what there is to know or what it means to imagine? And if in our research we increasingly reduce the scope of our source materials, what assumptions are we ourselves making as professors about how much reading and attendant thinking are needed to create new knowledge?”

This is not intended as a Luddite rant against the digital world, nor (as I suggested above), that more is necessarily better. Our students have grown up in a digital world and those of us who didn’t have become quite accustomed to it as well. This world shapes us as well as our students. The point is: knowing what we do about how students develop their technologies of reading, it becomes even more important to assign and scaffold reading in ways that intentionally foster deeper reading, closer reading, more reflective reading. That might mean shorter assignments or not – but it does mean that teaching reading is every bit as important as teaching writing.

What have you found in your courses? Did you even make it through this article? Tl;dr?

One thought on “Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr

  1. Pingback: Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr – Bear Medicine = Gary J. Sack

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