Thursday, January 03, 2013

The E-Text in Chaucer/Shakespeare Question

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who carefully chooses editions for my classes, and then has students show up with e-texts that aren't the same edition, and that are usually 19th century editions with no editorial apparatus at all, n page numbers, line numbers, nada.  Or, when they're a bit more textually savvy, students ask if they can use this e-text they found for free.

I finally wrote a note to my students this semester explaining that while they can choose other texts, I choose the editions I choose based on balancing cost, editorial and textual quality (glossing, notes, textual information, margin space for notes, etc.).

I somehow doubt this is actually going to resolve the issue because what students really want to hear is that yes, the free e-text they found is an excellent alternative.  But so far, in my experience, it's not.

How do you folks who deal with older texts deal with the question?


  1. I guess I figured a few years ago it was time to go with e-texts for everything possible. Believe me when I say students are more likely to read when it's EASY and ACCESSIBLE. Students tell me they read on their smartphones, tablets, etc. far more than if they were forced to carry a textbook around. I took all my grad lit classes using e-texts - profs never knew the difference. I aced all my work. E-texts are great -- as for making notes -- just type or highlight right on the page from a smartphone or tablet. Pen and paper are so NOT the way to do anything these days! I teach and study totally paperless, even in f2f classrooms. I hate paper. I hate writing. I even use my computer recorder to make notes when I'm reading so I don't have to even type.

    The technology age is here. Don't just "let" students use whatever technology is available -- ENCOURAGE them to do so. Believe me, they'll read and learn more.

  2. I reckon this is a battle I can't win. (Especially with the theater majors, who seem to think there is some kind of special virtue in reading a text without footnotes.) So I order the Norton Shakespeare, and strongly recommend that they choose a recent text with detailed notes and line numbering if they decide to use anything else, but I also expect that at least two or three students will totally ignore me. As long as it's NOT No Fear Shakespeare, I can live with it.

    And sometimes it leads to cool teachable moments. ("Raise your hand if you have an edition that assigns this line to Egeus. OK, now raise your hand if your edition assigns it to Philostrate. Now, let's go to the UVic site and see what the Quarto and Folio texts do. What would you do if you were an editor? Why?")

    With Chaucer, I very, very reluctantly direct them to the Harvard Chaucer page with the interlinear translations, because I know they are going to look at modern English translations no matter what I say, and I'd just as soon they use one that is reasonably accurate and forces them to keep the Middle English text in view.

  3. Margins for writing in notes? Eep! I can't mark up my print books. It's painful.

    Students are always substituting books (ask me about my pedagogical dogfight with Classics about which edition of Gilgamesh we prefer). Sometimes we get added complications of the bookstore not getting in sufficient copies, too, so my long-planned pedagogy goes out the window. A few years back this happened with the first-year class and Galateo. The etext option was a 19th century disaster and I vowed never again to be caught in such a situation.

    Like Nitewriter, I've embraced the change. Now I look for essays that we have online or in the databases that can serve as introduction to a source which they can get in print or read electronically if I can't get the same edition in each.

    I'm happy with options that some smart publishers (Yale, Chicago) have done by offering well-price etexts to match their print volumes. One thick text is available as a $15 ebook! Our library subscribes to Oxford Scholarship Online which gets us a lot as etexts now, too. My seniors will only have to buy one book in print for the winter term if they prefer electronic texts.

  4. My students actually prefer books, so far. I've had only a few using electronic devices to read, and I tell them if they can get the edition we're using, that's fine, but that there are reasons we're using this particular edition, including supplemental readings, glossary, etc. I tend to include as much book history type stuff in classes as I can, so that helps with the book-fetish aspect; apparently a lot of LRU students have at least a nascent book fetish themselves and are glad to learn some of the serious reasons for focusing on print books.

  5. I'm very reluctant to let the students use e-books and I do assign the intros in the books. So if they don't have the right book, they have a hassle reading the intros.

    I did have a few students who read e-books of more recent novels, like Hunger Games, and that was less problematic, though they had a hard time being on the same page as me in class.

    Personally, I always got the correct text when I was a student. Then again, e-books weren't plentiful then. I just like being on the same page as everyone else.

  6. Nitewriter, the issues isn't so much e-texts as *editions*, and e-texts of older texts often tend to be cheap substitutes for the quality version we order. Whether electronic or print, students showing up with a bad edition is a problem because they could have an entirely different text (for example, the 1818 vs. the 1832 versions of Frankenstein). This is pretty much true for most literature before the 20th century, and for texts that are edited from multiple period version (manuscripts or early print), that include glosses and notes, or that are translations. Here's an example from my experience: As you'll see, in my case, the cheap e-text version that my bookstore was selling to my students wasn't even the *right* translation (which means it's not the same text at all, frankly -- especially when you're talking about a very liberal 19th century translation vs. a modern scholarly one).

    As for e-texts in particular, when I give students the option, usually only one or two takes it. And they don't do as well. In both cases, it's been really desparate, struggling students who made that choice (which tells me something), one of whom was reading things like The Aeneid on her *phone* (so, no annotations and god only knows what the formatting looked like on that small scale), and the other of whom didn't follow my caveat that they must be able to bring the text to class. One rarely could find the passage we were talking about, and the other didn't have it.

    And that's my biggest problem with e-text in the literature classroom, even if they're essentially the same as the print edition (as in the case of contemporary novels) especially in upper-div courses for majors: if they don't have the text in front of them, they're not thinking about the material in the close way we expect them to.

    So, on the issue of *editions*, I sometimes give a range of acceptable substitutions (in Chaucer or Shakespeare, e.g.) and warn them when there's a bad e-text posing as their acceptable one (as in my story linked above -- and it's happened more than once now). On the issue of e-texts, it depends on the class and the texts, but when I allow them, they come with all sorts of caveats.

  7. Wow, I wish I could correct all my typos in that comment! Oops!

    Oh, and I want to add that I always vet the e-text versions myself when I can, to make sure they're the right text (often not!) and that the formatting is screwy (as is frequently the case with hastily done e-texts -- the "facing page" Italian/English Mandelbaum translation of the Inferno, for example, comes out in e-text form as a bunch of Italian followed by a bunch of English, all garbled together).