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The older I get, the more I forget the things I read. That’s probably because I just have read more, so fewer things I read strike me as new or memorable. So I forget. It is also true that most of my reading now is on the screen, the black mirror of modernity that is no friend to memory. This is a challenge for me, a teacher of writing and rhetoric to first-year students and a researcher in the same field. It’s pushed me to think up strategies to teach reading in the digital age.

First, I’ve had to recognize the spatialization of memory. In the captivating Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryann Wolf uses functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRIs, to map the experience of literacy on our brains and our minds. She shows how complex connections are forged among parts of our brain related to language, vision, spatialization, memory and attention when we read on the page. Those activities are different—and less intense in the fMRIs—when reading on the screen.

Furthermore, how we remember, how we understand and how we pay attention is simply worse whenever we read on the screen. While the jury is still out on the mechanisms of that difference, the fact of it is not. The victim with the gunshot wound and multiple lacerations is unquestionably deceased—the cause of death, whether it is the gunshot or the stabbing, remains unclear.

Second, I’ve started accounting for the effect of “liquid modernity” on our mental schemas. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the term to describe our current social state, in which we lack the stable and durable institutional structures, identities and even communicative systems characterizing “solid” midcentury societies. It seems to me that the fluidity of the external world has been internalized in our interpretive habits. How can we build coherence of form for our ideas when we rarely experience solid forms in the world anymore? We lack the shapes into which we intuit and retain our reading experiences.

It occurs to me that perhaps reading on the screen is bad for our memories because it lacks the physicality of the book. Unlike a book, which has a clear beginning, middle and end, we don’t have a tangible form to refer to when reading on a screen. Wolf’s scans illustrate how our brains connect spatialization and memory when reading from a physical page. When reading a physical book, I often check how much I have left to read; hooking a finger between the pages as a bookmark, I huff about how much more there is still to go. That habit helps me not only understand the book’s structure and ideas but also physically and temporally organize the information for easier recall.

That process is just harder to do in the digital form. Whether the text is 100 or 1,000 pages does not matter: it is always the one flat rectangle lit up in a dim liquid glow. I lose any intuitive sense of where I am in the book and where that idea is placed and what came before and after. Saying Hegel is too long when we finally come to “the Master-Slave Dialectic” section and still with 500 or so more pages to go just does not land the same way when it is on the screen. We also miss the satisfaction of dropping that brick into the cardboard box labeled “Books for Donation.”

What to Do in the Classroom?

This trained incapacity to intuit our readings is a concern for more and more people who care about first-year writing. Since it is one curricular space explicitly charged with teaching a broad academic literacy skill set, we are also often the first people to have to work with the broad transformations in students’ literacy lives to do our jobs. Just like everyone else, our current generation of students finds it hard to remember things they read on the screen. But unlike us, they do not know how it could be otherwise.

First-year writing space now also functions as a space where we have to teach students how to read more effectively using screens. To address this problem, I increasingly try to inculcate a sense of spatialized experiences into their reading habits. While the digital context has flattened their reading habits, it has also provided new tools to make use of more effectively.

Working with students in their first year, anecdotally speaking, I have found two specific skills and habits early on have had big payoffs. They come to class with more to say on the assigned readings, and their written assignments also echoed more of the texts. It also means that we usually settle on a common vocabulary for our discussions and activities early, which makes the class run more smoothly. These two things are:

  • Mind maps. In my classes at Virginia Tech, we use an assignment called “worknets” to help students create semantic networks of the texts they read. It is a simple yet elegant assignment developed by my colleague Derek Mueller, who details it here. Students must map out the text using four terms: semantic (phrases about ideas they think are important), bibliographic (citations or references to other readings or texts), chronotropic (related to where ideas occur in the context of the text and the cultural/historical moment it was produced), and idiomatic (stock phrases that might appear in the text). They also have to do a short paragraph writing up their sense of the connections they identify. This mind-mapping activity helps students develop a way to visualize and put their takeaways into a shape that they can remember. Once they get used to this expectation for my class, they practice it for all their readings and—I hope—it becomes a habit.
  • Multimodal reading experiences. I ask students to read and listen to the texts at the same time. That can help them maintain focus by providing multiple streams of information that they can latch onto. I know it has helped me at times to listen to a novel while reading it at the same time. It adds another dimension to the reading experience, the sound of another person talking. While this is hard to do for all texts, more and more interesting essays and articles appropriate for college classrooms often come with the choice of listening to it. Anyone can also use a screen reader. I admit it might sound tedious, but I think we can get students to expect this to be normal and eventually, all textual sources and essays we might assign in the classroom will have the option of narrations by professionals built in. All bets are off, and it is not a step too far to start thinking that the act of reading now also must include a basic narration of the text.

The digital transformation is not going anywhere, and those of us tasked with bequeathing our precious cultures of literacy need to use all the tools at hand to help not only our students but ourselves to adapt to it. We have to teach reading in the digital age because it is our job, but we should do it in ways that make it interesting for us. Work out of the sciences and social theories can do this in ways that are both efficacious and honed in what John Keats called our “negative capabilities,” or the ability to exist in a state of uncertainty and not reach for overdetermined conclusions prematurely. I know that my experiments in teaching my students reading in the writing classroom are still just that. Not sure where the things I am trying will land in the long term, but, at least, it will be interesting.

Shakil Rabbi is an assistant professor of English in the department of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His scholarship focuses on writing and rhetoric, and he can be reached at

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