iPad Student Diaries #5: Literature assignment

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One of the classes I’m taking this semester is Literature 2, a continuation of Literature 1 from last semester. I’m currently working on an assignment for that class and the iPad is part of that process in a different way than the normal note taking task I use it for.

The reading list for the class includes several novels, poems, short stories and a few plays. As you’d imagine, the novels are the longest reads and so they require a bit more attention than the others. When we have a book to read, I first get the ebook version of the book from a secret place that was not on Allen’s list of book stores. I then go on Amazon to see if Schmoop (or anyone else) has a study guide for the book in ebook form. Schmoop has had all the books we’ve read so far, and at $3.50 per ebook it’s well worth the price to have the convenience of having it in ebook form rather than reading it on their web page. These study guides normally ave very detailed, chapter-by-chapter summaries of the book, which is a great way to read up on the entire book in 30-45 minutes without losing any details. I also normally get the audio book, either from Audible or “other places”. Audio books are very helpful with the kind of books we read which are set in random foreign countries (India, South Africa etc) where the names of characters are not the easiest to pronounce. Lastly I might get the movie if the book ends up being interesting enough, if only to see the different.

This might seem excessive, but every piece of the puzzle serves a purpose- especially when you’re writing an assignment about the books. In this case the assignment is to write about how different ethnicities are portrayed in Disgrace by J.M Coetzee and A Passage to India by E. M Forster. It’s what my classmates describe as a “long” assignment, though I spend so much time writing articles on this site every month that a few thousand words here and there doesn’t bother me.The most annoying part of any such assignment to me is the ridiculously outdated rules for quotations and references that they enforce (like any other academic institution). I’m used to just right-clicking a word and inserting a link, so having to do it the “correct” way with a list of authors, sources etc is unnecessarily complicated to say the least. But I digress…

Of course, since their cautionary tale was reported in a print newspaper, no one read it.

I’m well on my way to finishing the assignment at this point and the iPad has been a big part of the process- in fact I have a hard time imagining how people do this without one (or a similar system). A lot of time is spent looking up pieces of information in the book, and when you’re dealing with something that is several hundred pages long (in paper form) it’s not exactly easy to find a small detail that you remember seeing somewhere. Luckily I have the books in Stanza (free, awesome ereader app) so I can just search for any term and get a list of where they are used in the book, then instantly jump there. It’s probably the single most useful tool anyone can have in a literature class, and then some. I can instantly find out where a character was first mentioned, which is great if you’re reading a book and they’re referencing someone who you don’t remember or if you’re writing an assignment like I am. I was able to search for terms like “black” and “white” and find out not only how often the terms were used in the text, but also when they were first used and so on. If I need to quote something from the book, I can search for part of the text and find it and then copy it right off the book and into my assignment without having to copy it manually (mostly useful for longer quotes, naturally). At one point, I wanted to see if the loan of a gun in one of the stories was ever referenced again, and a simple search for “gun” answered that beyond any doubt.

The search feature has also been a big help during lectures, since the lecturer often refer to parts of the book. He normally gives a page number or chapter, which causes instant chaos because there are always several versions of the book so page numbers don’t match up. Chapter numbers only gives a general idea, so that leaves you to count paragraphs or search the text with your eyes, not CTRL+F. With the search feature in Stanza I just type in a couple of words from what he’s quoting and it instantly shows me where in the book he’s at. I swear I could take a lunch break in the spare time between when he tells us to find something in the book and the time that people with paper books actually find it.

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A lot of these books are also old and written in different parts of the world, which means that there are often words that are unfamiliar or have different meaning. With a paper book, you might be lucky enough to have an included dictionary of special words in the back, but most often not. With an ebook (and a reader app that supports it, like Stanza or Kindle) all you need to do is select the word and click “define” (or the equivalent) and you get a dictionary definition of the word with synonyms and whatnot. Much easier and quicker than looking it up in a separate dictionary, so it doesn’t interrupt your reading session as much.

The last advantage of having all you need on the iPad is quite simply that you have all y0u need on the iPad. All the books both from this semester and the last, including the notes from class and the study guides take up only a few dozen megabytes on the iPad. The paper version on the other hand, well, I think a decent part of the rain forest died to give us the privilege of reading all these stories. It makes me sad that people still use paper, and I don’t think it’s that they like reading on paper (we have e-ink for that) as much as it is lack of knowledge on what is possible and how to do it. As simple as it is to learn how to get an ebook on to anything, many people look at technology as some dangerous monster that will eat their arm if they try to use it. In the end it’s their loss, and maybe the reason they think a few thousand words is a lot is because they have to excavate the content from a collection of dead trees. Maybe they should look into Archeology 101 instead.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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