This semester, I am teaching one of my courses using entirely digital media. It’s about time, right? The advent of digital books and the widespread availability of e-journals, electronic archives, and numerous web-based social networking, research, and authoring tools suggests this is an obvious – no, an inevitable path. If anything, given the kinds of innovative e-pedagogy others are engaged in, I’m a little tardy.

But moving from mostly digital (where I’m coming from) to entirely digital (where I am) is significant; it feels like an irreversible step, one that introduces nearly as many impediments as it does enhancements. (its romantic parallel, I think, is the enormously scary leap from engagement to marriage; getting engaged doesn’t demand quite the same commitment as saying “I do” does — before you marry, you can, with regrets and apologies and no small cup of heartbreak, at the very least recant if the romance fizzles. but once you’ve said “I do,” reversing the deal is a very difficult and very painful endeavor)

E-reading (I’m defining the term broadly here; beyond Kindle and its ilk, I’m referring to our ability to read and, using tools such as Diigo and Zotero, to interact with digital text in ways modeled on our interactions with printed text) is one of the most notable challenges. The emergence of tools designed to complement the e-reading experience (we’re using Diigo) does enable us to emulate virtually the traditional active reading process (e.g. annotating, marking up). And in my class we’re attempting precisely that, but there is a point (like, three paragraphs in) where the similitude grows tenuous and the surrogate, worthy stand-in that it aims to be, simply can’t replace its exemplar.

I don’t mean to levy a reluctant’s critique. E-reading technologies are impressive; their aims laudable, and they will only get better. Too, I was not coerced into ditching print this term. I elected to do so, and I personally selected its replacement. But by no means have I relinquished the right to remain critical about the choice.

I’m also preserving my right to print. By the second day of class, for example, having tried, earnestly, to plan lecture and discussion using several articles I’d e-annotated, I printed them. (and for just a moment I felt horribly guilty about it too)

So what drove me back to the material comfort of pulp: aesthetics, routine, portability, practicality, visual acuity? All of these? I’m not sure. The research on reading in a digital medium is still being done, but the findings of this article, which suggest that we read less deeply in virtual settings, appear particularly germane.

There is no question that we are – at this moment – participants in the paradigm shift from print to digital culture, and the data (a moving target in its own right) describing the transformation of literacy is currently being gathered. But I keep thinking: I embrace this; I’m adapting; there’s so much promise, and I only mind a little that we are all to some extent subjects during this extraordinary period of cultural experimentation. But sometimes, like when I’m trying to read – deeply, meaningfully, critically – it’s so difficult.

I’m tempted to argue that the need for print, for me, represents a solution to a practical problem. It’s just not that easy to prepare a response to a rich, multifaceted article, one that I’m using to guide a class in critical discussion, exclusively in digital format. (plus, and this is not a defense – in turn, during class I’m displaying our course blog, the article, another related article for interrogation, as well as several website examples; that’s quite a lot on a single screen, and it really demotes the role the article we’re talking about can play visually)

In so many other areas, positioning teaching and learning in a digital realm has been effortless, yet, even in the lab classroom where, synchronously, we all have access to the same article on the screens in front of us, and even though I can project my own annotated version for display during discussion, I don’t find my preparation complete without another read. On paper. Pen in hand.

To be fair, while I read again, I do leverage the course blog to include links to several illuminating examples and counterpoints; and it is helpful to be able to grant students immediate access to resources meant to enrich their own interpretations of a text. But, when I walk into class, at least when I’m teaching a challenging work, I want a physical version of the text, one that I’ve read and annotated. And I could argue that that’s just smart (technology can fail; I need to have a backup), but, I must also point out that in giving my students e-texts only, I’ve set up a model that effectively, albeit tacitly, discourages print while encouraging and anticipating e-reading and e-annotation as the norm. And I’m the one who’s balking.

Maybe “digital natives” like students can make the transition. Right – for them there is no transition to make. Some might even argue that our students don’t read anyway, but in my experience they do. And they’re good readers. And so far they’ve voiced no reservations about saying I do to digital. I guess, in my class anyway, as the “digital immigrant,” I’m the one with just a bit of cold feet.