Ernest Hemingway Meets "This American Life": the New English Lit Class

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College professors are finding creative ways to use tablets in classes.
By Stephen Chupaska

What will e-readers do to the time-honored tradition of scribbling notes in the margins and underlining passages in print books?

Remains to be seen how quickly college students will adopt e-books on a mass scale. Thorny issues over who can use the books when students rent digital versions, how the growing movement of free, online textbooks will be incorporated into college curriculum, and figuring out how to share notes online are just a few important unknowns that are still being hammered out as college students think about using ebooks.

And though students still complain about using iPads (slow, cumbersome typing, for one thing), some English literature college professors are finding creative ways of using its multi-media uses.

Scott Cohen, an English professor at Stonehill Colllege, located about 30 miles southwest of Boston, is in his second year of implementing the iPad into his lessons.

“The iPad really helps move between different kinds of texts and material, visual, cinematic, written, audio, etcetera,” Cohen said. “Students love them, beyond just being a new shiny device.”


Last year, Cohen received a grant from the college’s Center for Teacher and Learning to purchase three iPads as part of a pilot program in his Storytelling in the Age of Information class.

Cohen incorporates the popular NPR public radio show This American Life in his classes, and using the iPad allows the class to move between audio clips and an annotated transcript of the story that can be projected on a screen.

Cohen said students can initiate these sequences and bookmark them, efficiently saving them for future reference or emailing them to each other.

The iPad allows Cohen and his students to capitalize on the “improvisational” nature of class, as they can call up passages more quickly or even play a clip from the radio show to counter a point made by a classmate.

“The iPad works like a community slate, passed around the room, collecting and collating students' thoughts about a given topic, a line of text, or quotation under investigation,” Cohen said.

And students prefer the iPad to laptops, he said, because the latter tends to isolate them.

What's more, one of the big criticisms of the iPad -- that it’s mostly a single application device -- is an advantage for Cohen, as it forces students to focus on a particular task, instead of say, chatting on Gmail or scrolling through Facebook posts.

Elsewhere, the University of Virginia English Department recently completed a three-semester pilot program using iPads in the classroom along with a wiki-syllabus and blog.

In addition to commenting on the coursework, some students posted about the experience of swiping pages instead of leafing through them. One student wrote: “Maybe it's just my own somewhat utopian view of myself sitting outside on a beautiful day with the breeze blowing reading these great works on… an iPad?.... I do not wish to bash the very existence of the iPad. I do think its invention is a great thing, but for English classes I’ve been so conditioned to read from a book.”


Cohen's use of the This American Life program is still an exception in the college landscape. Though companies like Inkling are completely changing the experience of "reading"by adding interactive experiences like note-sharing, social media, and high-definition, manipulable images and videos, for the most part e-readers and tablets are still just replacements for print books.

Philip Ray, who has taught at Connecticut College for 36 years, said he’s seeing more students using  iPads and Kindles for the required reading.

Ray said for the most part, it doesn’t make any difference to him if students prefer to use e-books, especially if they are available for free or at reduced prices.

“It works well for books that are in the public domain,” he said.

Ray is, however, a bit more fastidious though when he teaches poetry, as he wants to make sure that a digital version of a poem looks the way the author intended.

“Some poems have strict left-hand margins or there are lines that begin with capital letters,” Ray said. “Sometimes when they are digitized things can be a bit off.”

Ray said the increased popularity of tablets is a hot topic of conversation among his colleagues and the education community at large -- particularly since many of his peers own iPads or Kindles.