Paper: a reliable (and recyclable) technology

Undine has some useful thoughts about paper and its irreplaceability.  She notes that there are some instances in our professional lives as academics when hard copies of documents are not just preferable, they’re irreplaceable:

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. 

This is a great example.  Bound copies of conference programs easier to use and encourage actual conference panel attendance.  How many of you go to every panel you preselect in advance, and how many of you (like me and Undine) change your mind on the fly and go to different sessions entirely?  That can’t happen without a full program.  Why put on a conference if you’re not interested in making sure audiences can find the panels they want to see?  With all of the petroleum burned for travel by conference attendees, worrying about the paper used for printing a conference program seems like an almost pointless gesture.  (Let’s face it:  the greenest of all possible conferences isn’t as green as everyone staying home and skipping the meeting.)  I think it’s smart to ask your membership or registered participants if they want a hard copy of the program–that would be frugal and responsible without depriving the interested membership of a printed program.

Besides, moves like not printing conference programs don’t actually save paper, they just shift the paper use to somewhere else.  (Undine notes this too, and complains about administrators expecting meeting attendees to print up their own copies of documents.  “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.”)  I’ve tried printing a few pages from a conference program and found that I used nearly as much paper as a printed program would have, just to print up a day’s worth of panel descriptions.

She concludes her musings on paper as a viable technology with this:

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.

Right on.  Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.  I refused to use PowerPoint in my lectures for a number of years, because all I saw was that it was being used badly without adding anything beyond what an overhead projector could accomplish.  At my former university in the late 1990s, I sat through countless meetings run by administrators in which we were subjected to bad PowerPoint lectures in which the administrators did nothing more than read the words on the slide and give us a Xeroxed stack of meeting slides so we could follow along ourselves.  Now, that was a stupid waste of paper.

Paper has stood the test of time.  Microfilm?  Microform?  Microfiche?  Faxes?  MS Word ca. 1986?  Your BASIC programming homework on 5-1/2 inch truly floppy “floppy discs?”  Your college emails on a VAX system?  The PDFs of articles you downloaded last week?  Not so much.

0 thoughts on “Paper: a reliable (and recyclable) technology

  1. Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.

    Am I being too cynical, or could it also be that because gadgets are expensive, the administrators’ salaries look less generous as a percentage of operating costs?


  2. Maybe a bit too cynical by my lights, but not far off. What I sense is that in the 1990s, administrators got talked into buying a lot of stuff, and then they hoped the faculty would volunteer their time to figure out how it use it all. (The dot-com revolution was fueled and funded by this kind of consumption, in education as well as in other industries.) That’s mostly what happened–I think people are using tech much more intelligently than they were 10 years ago. (Or maybe it’s just me. That is, *I* am using technology more intelligently than I was 10 years ago.)

    It’s not as bad as it used to be now, but I get the same sense about clickers in the classroom now that I had about PowerPoint back in the 1990s, although fortunately I haven’t felt any pressure to use them in my teaching. I guess it’s more about web applications (software) rather than new gadgets (hardware) these days.


  3. Administrators love (relatively) immaterial things that they can fly consultants in and out to “present” on, and then buy the whole package of content and platforms from their “preferred partner” vendors. Every so often they get to switch out and become the consultants themselves, flown into their counterparts’ places to mirror the process. …Do the powerpoints, munch the donuts, fly back home, mass-mail invitations to a “webinar” (sic), transition into a “new startup” and become a “preferred partner” vendor-supplier to the people who they once flew back and forth. Paper’s just been around too long to sustain much of that sort of crap. Our CTE (you can guess it, center for teaching e…..) just subscribed the whole faculty to some wack-bunny electronic “journal” on teaching innovation and distance whatever. No word on the number of public dollars committed. Soon we’ll be invited to help the library cancel subscriptions to some actual journals…


  4. Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.

    No. Administrators love technology because it provides them with complicated shit that they can be “experts” on and that they can “administer”, thus helping to ensure their own indispensibility once the complicated shit has been “rolled out” and forced onto faculty, staff, and students.


  5. Thanks, Historiann! Just to be clear: the conference did provide the choice of getting a paper copy, but I gave in to my desire to be green like the cool kids and thus ordered the electronic version instead. It’s my fault, not theirs.


  6. Comrade–I’ve never seen an administrator in the Liberal Arts master any technology let alone develop a monopoly on its use. Maybe things are different in the sciences, but LibArts types are much likelier to push some kind of “community outreach” (i.e. unpaid labor by faculty members) than to bother to learn how to use the technology they or the university are purchasing.

    Indyanna knows how this works. I’ve wondered about the revolving door between ed leadership and ed technology for a long time, but (again) in the Lib Arts it’s probably not as common as it is in education or business. (Just guessing here.)


  7. What about the fossil fuel that runs our machines to read PDFs? Or the slave labor to mine the precious earths that make up the batteries? At least paper is biodegradable, and a renewable resource. Nothing is carbon neutral, but I resent that paper (and by the way books) have become the evil of environment, but no discussion about all the kindle version 1s that are now in the landfill in order to make room for version 2. Never mind that they also give someone the ability to pull the plug on your library, conference program, or whatever. But print off the conference program and it is yours for the next 50 years. If you are done with it, you can print something on the back of it, and then recycle.


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  9. Sorry guys, paper may not be out but in some teaching areas there really is no need for paper. I have no idea what administrators like or dislike and I couldn’t care less. In my classes or in my publishing, journals or conferences, there is no paper. As for classes, despite the limitation Power Points or PDFs are used. I also use videos for my introduction to biomedical engineering classes (e.g. robotic surgery and MRIs).

    Power Point is a terrible expression mode. When students present, they are questioned endlessly to breath life into the dead slide.

    Assignments and exams are deposited electronically as: text, Word documents or PDFs. My marked returns are emailed to the students. NO PAPER at all.

    I like to read paper books and electronic papers.


  10. We are a “green” campus. That means almost everything on our campus is done electronically. However, I noticed that at all the meetings I go to (and I go to many) we get a printed agenda. When there is a large agenda packet, I’ll read it, and take my netbook to the meeting to refer to it; but I’ll take notes on the agenda so I can take information to whoever I need to take it to. I can *find* my notes better on paper.

    I also found that when I posted lots of reading for my class on our course management site, many students didn’t read it, and because they didn’t print it out, they didn’t read it closely or take notes. So I’ve gone back to a very expensive reader, but it means they will have a physical thing to look at.

    I am intrigued by the studies which suggest that we read online differently from the way we read print. I think it’s true, at least for me…


  11. koshem Bos–I understand that paperless works for some people and some fields. But in History and other book-intensive humanities disciplines, when our articles are 30-40 pages long and single-authored, online reading is cumbersome, unwholesome, and/or just not done (as Susan’s experience suggests. And this is with the supposedly tech-savvy younger generation!)

    I read stuff on screens all of the time, and sometimes all day long. But they’re typically nothing longer than a blog post or a newspaper or magazine article. Sometimes I’ll read articles for my research online and save a copy in a folder of PDFs I keep, but only if I’m raiding them for some quick information or ideas–not if they’re really important. If they’re substantially important, then they get printed up and stuck in a oaktag folder.

    There’s a private dialogue each reader can enter into with a printed text that isn’t quite accessible when it’s a digital-only copy of the text. (At least, I’ve never found a way to read and take substantial notes on a digital-only text.)


  12. “But in History and other book-intensive humanities disciplines, when our articles are 30-40 pages long and single-authored, online reading is cumbersome, unwholesome, and/or just not done…”

    I feel a little like Brutus.

    Sorry to say it, but I just got a budget e-reader specifically so that I don’t have to print off all those 30-40 page articles from jstor, proquest and the like. The newest generation of e-readers even allows you to take notes on the documents in your own personal chicken scrawl, digitally dog-ear the pages for later, and save it all electronically, although mine’s just for reading and taking notes (on paper, in black, dated moleskine journals, with black bic roller pens. And before you say it: Yes I am that OCD).

    I’m reading digital-only editions of a lot of books (right now I’m reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is.. well it’s entertaining anyway) — I even have caxton’s entire translation of the golden legend on there, and can carry it with me on the subway without a shopping cart!

    The tech’s not quite there yet for the humanities to go all paper-free, but I think you’ll see in the next ten years that it’ll go a long way in that direction.


  13. Maybe so. I’m a very late adapter of technology! But what happens when you drop your e-Reader into the bathtub, or spill a cup of coffee on it, or drop it from your backpack as you get off of your bike? Are all of your books with your personal notes and dogears saved on the cloud somewhere, or are they gone forever?

    Paper was a risky storage strategy back when open fires and coal fireplaces were a part of every home, but times have changed. (Maybe that’s the techology that really interests me–the technologies that make paper documents and paper storage so safe?) Paper is also not dependent on another technology to read it (like microform/fiche/film, or software, or an e-Reader.)

    What happens when they stop manufacturing your e-Reader and your books won’t transfer to the dominant technology? (Ever hear of Beta? 8-track tapes?)


  14. Hmm, I was mostly with you till that last comment. I do all my reading/marking of dissertations, student papers online: my students get lots more comments that way, and I have a record of them; v. useful when writing recs. I have PDFs of all the articles I rely on, and notes go in a bibliography program.

    Yes, sometimes I print stuff out to carry with me. But I don’t think there is something essential about history that requires paper; rather it is about what you are used to. (e.g.: my computer scientist partner reads articles only in printouts — I’m the techie one in the family.)

    I think CHOICE is the key here: technology allows options. Personally, I’d rather self-print a conference program: I print the few bits I know I want (do I need all those ads? the pre-conference meeting lists I have nothing to do with? the list of sessions during my lunch with old friends?,) — 2 pages in 1 to save paper — and keep a PDF of the whole thing on my mini-laptop hard drive and/or Kindle and/or google docs in case my plans change. Ditto with pre-circulated conference papers. I hate carrying piles of papers, so PDFs make me happy.

    I’m with you on the questionable greenness about it all, but still think there are increasing advantages to mediums other than paper that we should embrace as a good option — much like undine’s conference did.


  15. For subject matters, or individual imaginations, that are basically sequential or consecutive, as opposed to concurrent, or for people with *very* powerful short-term memories, electronic information management may well work best. But for the kinds of quotidian operations that are the very stuff of a lot of humanities scholarship, I’m convinced that it’s essential to be able to have multiple things open at the same time, side by side, or else transient but frequently critical connections just get missed. Having been missed, of course, there’s no record of their ever having been there to be not missed, so it’s hard to present proof of this problem. If we all had big fat multi-screen Bloomberg terminals on our desks, and at our library carrels, much of this problem might go away. But how this translates to small and mobile devices is hard to see. Maybe Kindle it fine for sitting there at a conference following along with the presenter. But I can’t see how it’s fine for finding– much less nurturing–subtle intersections between old and new scholarship; especially between the stuff in DA 223.8 (LC) and in 922.473b (Dewey) for the schools with the billion dollar endowments that never got around to finishing the conversion from Dewey to LC, but are now rushing to move much of their “hard” collections to remote storage to make room for more electronic group study rooms. But this slides into the question of academic library practice, which is slightly (albeit not unrelatedly) off-topic.


  16. You know what, Historiann? That’s EXACTLY what Vaulting just said to me. I can understand the fragility of electronic data and I’m totally with you on that. Hence my note-taking is on paper. In journals. BUT.

    For now all it’s doing is replacing those things that I’m not afraid to lose. I’m definitely not afraid to lose all the things I’d have to download anyway and then print out for myself (like pdfs from jstor), and a lot of books (not all. not by a long shot. but many) can be downloaded for free from project gutenberg.

    As for the transition to newer tech — that’s the beauty of software. If someone invents a new DVD player, you need new DVDs. If someone invents a new ereader, they’ll just write a piece of code that formats it for the new device. I can already convert anything I can cut-and-paste into an epub, and my reader reads pdfs.

    The DRM on ebooks is a sticking point for me. Hopefully it’ll go away like it did for mp3s, but I suppose we’ll see about that. Let’s just say I’m not planning on -buying- any ebooks anytime soon.

    p.s. I still have a working betamax (for old home movies), and I know enough to operate an 8-track player, but truth be told, I haven’t owned something that could play audiocassette tapes for over a decade now.


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  18. I’ve got a massive Zotero library that syncs (including PDFs and/or web page snapshots) via “the cloud” so that I’ll have all of the same things on each computer I use, which is extraordinarily convenient for many reasons (searching and citation management as well as syncing). But to really read or teach something, I still print out the articles, so I also have about four or five file cabinet drawers of printed articles as well (plenty going back as far as my undergraduate days).

    My attention span is longer and my own intellectual engagement greater when I read and react to print — electronically, my reactions and thoughts are often so fleeting that I fail to capture them; even typing notes doesn’t have the same way of inscribing things in my memory that writing or even just underlining them by hand does. But it’s useful to be able to access the virtual contents of those file cabinets (sans my underlining and marginalia) from just about anywhere if I forget to bring something with me.


  19. Historiann, the question is whether we can train to read long complicated documents. I can answer only for myself and that is not applicable to others.

    My wife, an art major, takes notes on a keyboard. Again, she is way smarter and faster (brain wise) than I am and generalization is better left for journalists (sadly, they do all the time). I got my mother’s genes, that’s I don’t take notes nor lists to the supermarket.


  20. Most of what I would have said has already been said, but I’ll throw this bit in. I do 90% of my work on a circa 2000 Apple iBook- one of the pretty clamshell Legally Blonde ones. It does everything I need it to, Word, PDFs, email, with minimal fuss. My TA cubicle is thus almost paper free, with technology that came out when I was in high school. So you can go paperless without getting pulled into the latest trends.


  21. I have become increasingly paper free and now do most reading of articles, the occasional e-books, and if possible sources too, on my computor- but this is mainly to save paper (and because I work from home a lot so I have all my work in one place). I am much happier to print things out when it is on the universities dime and not mine (so much for green-friendliness). But, I do like a paper conference programme, because I take notes in the columns about the papers I go to see, and then use them to refer back to later. Plus if things get dull, it’s good to have some reading material…


  22. It is difficult to avoid the latest tech trends if your computer must interface with you school’s server and what goes on it. Our web page and online advising/registrations/grade submission system means you have to have a new computer every few years to handle the upgrades on these programs. Ultimately if my computer can’t talk to my school computer, life gets even more complicated.


  23. Sorry, but I think that mailing a conference program to every member of an organization regardless of whether they are attending the annual meeting is a waste of paper, staff time, and money. There’s also the issue of last minute changes in the program. The American Association for the History of Medicine has decided to only make the print program available to those who register for the conference.


  24. I’ve always wanted to tell administrators that every time I put a piece of chalk on a blackboard in a classroom, I am using appropriate classroom technology.


  25. Administrators at my former university touted the savings of 20,000 sheets of paper in the Provost’s office by going to e-mail. Alas, that’s when department budgets skyrocketed with new copiers, computers, scanners, etc., to keep up with the administration’s latest scheme. And then all those recycle boxes appeared.

    I sent to the Provost’s office Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece entitled “The Social Life of Paper” ( And yes, it was on paper and sent in an interdepartmental envelope. I’m History Maven, and I print.


  26. There are lots of ways to save paper while still retaining its use. This isn’t a zero sum game. And much of it involves some common sense (always lagging in academic settings). For example, as Historiann suggests, ask participants if they want to receive a paper copy of the conference program (*registered* participants only). Don’t copy/ print a thousand copies of things you don’t need. As annoying as I found it at my old job that faculty were all restricted to a certain number of copies per year, I understand why now that I’m at my new job and I routinely see faculty and grad students xeroxing entire books. Sometimes you just need to a) buy the book or b) read it quickly and take good notes.

    I’ve tried having students email papers and using the “comment” function on Word. That’s okay, but I definitely read more carefully on hard copy. But ask students to double side their papers (to conserve paper) and they stare at you as though they’ve never heard of this function (this from a generation that learned how to twitter in kindergarten). Everything should be double-sided.

    I completely agree with Historiann about the ways students do the readings (or not) when the readings are digital. Interacting with the text is crucial, not just running your eyes over it.


  27. Oh, yeah, and as for the trend of shunting off costs to faculty – word! My department doesn’t give start up funds to new faculty. You get access to a computer, and that’s it. So, nobody gets a printer. You can use the department printer, but its’ in a different building or on a different floor, where of course there’s no privacy and everyone can see/ run off with the drafts of your conference paper, fellowship proposal, or ahem! job application letter. So I had to buy my own, for which I am deeply bitter.


  28. I’m not a complete luddite–I take notes in Word on my computer, for the most part. I haven’t used a paper notebook for books since grad school (ca. 1993, I think). But I’m with JJO: there’s something about paper that encourages engagement with the ideas. (Or at least it mitigates against the distraction of e-mail, the web, blogs, etc. that I’m always working against on-screen.)

    You know how there’s a slow food movement? I think humanities types might want to consider starting a slow reading movement. Even the warp-speed at which we consumed books in grad school (say pre-1995 or so) seems quaint and deliberate in retrospect now since the digital revolution.


  29. As for distractions — this is why I got an ereader that literally does nothing, nothing at all, except allowing me to read. Reading on my computer? For distractions today there’s e-mail (today from the med-grad listserv, people proposing papers for a session I’m arranging but can’t say which, updates on the X-Prize foundation’s work as I’m a closet science nerd, and more), there’s blogging/commenting on other people’s blogs, and now there’s twitter! to get work done, the computer has to actually be off now. oye.


  30. H – I think the analog for “slow food” is “deep reading.” Check out this link:

    Apparently, the CEO of Google is very concerned that deep reading is going the way of the dodo.

    For what it’s worth, one reason why I cling to paper for note-taking is because I type so quickly that I can type without retaining ANY information in my brain (which was great when I did transcription typing for cash – I literally could type an entire report and have no idea what I’d typed because I would daydream or think about other things while I was typing, which is creepy a little bit but this is what happens when I type). I’ve ordered a Kindle (though they’re back-ordered, so who knows when I’ll actually get it) because I want to try shifting my PDF-stuff to it, but I still think paper is essential to me thinking deeply.


  31. I heard that there have been studies done on how people read online v. paper. Apparently online people scan more and read even less of what’s there.

    The Federal Courts have all shifted over to e-filing documents, everything is filed electronically without a hard copy. About six months after my local court started e-filing, it created a new policy: in addition to filing your electronic document, you were also required to file a paper copy with the Judge. My theory? Printing costs at the Court skyrocketed as all the law clerks printed off 100s of pages in motions and motion responses so they could work off the paper copies.

    I flip back and forth between electronic and paper documents for most of my work. It really just depends on the mood I’m in and what feels least cumbersome at the moment.


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