In this week’s final post from one of the Active Online Reading project’s student researchers, Stefan Szablewski, who is studying History at the University of Nottingham, shares his reflections on his own reading practices – digital and otherwise.

‘Oh, History’ the reply invariably goes, before a furrowing of the brow. ‘That must be a lot of reading?’

You don’t say. If I had a pound for every time I’d had that conversation, as the old adage goes, I’d be rich. Nonetheless, I realise that in two and a half years of studying said History at the University of Nottingham, I’ve seldom actually taken the question further and reflected on how that reading, my reading, which is overwhelmingly carried out digitally, is done.

So, straight to it. My digital reading practices, as they are now – or at least most of the time. There’s a docudrama in waiting about the trials and tribulations occasionally faced by students in accessing material both assigned and for use in essays, but they can be leapfrogged for this piece. All my digital reading, and therefore the bulk of my reading at university, begins with the opening of a PDF on my laptop. There are then a number of different ‘elements’ to my reading practices, some varying and some remaining consistent, which I’ve attempted to split thematically, below.

Image of laptop and library building
Photo of Stefan’s workspace in the library of UC Dublin where he studied during his semester abroad in 2020.

Location: Though always on my laptop, I find myself somewhat nomadically cycling through a series of different reading locations as the week progresses, of specific seats in certain cafes in town, UoN’s very own Monica Partridge Teaching and Learning building, or the Hallward Library’s more communal spaces. I’m very happy writing essays in my bedroom, but for some reason attempting to read in there ends in failure, almost without exception.

Screen: The way I set up my screen to read follows a consistent script. The PDF, open only in the browser’s relevant viewer-cum-widget, takes up some two thirds, always on the right-hand side. For some unknown reason I struggle to read on the left, and don’t like it stretched across the entire laptop screen width. The other third is either taken up by a blank word document, a new google tab, or simply left empty. There are some more idiosyncratic things, as well. The taskbar sits somewhat out of place on the screen’s left hand side, because I prefer the document to extend to the bottom unimpeded. I have to have a mouse, because I find scrolling with the arrow keys far too jarring.

Noise: I can tolerate some background noise without feeling distracted, and indeed actually prefer it to sitting in complete silence for extended periods. Naturally, though, this has limits. As enlightening as overhearing my café-neighbours’ in-depth analysis of the lives of their cats may well be, some background noise can become irksome and hinder my concentration. I often therefore find myself in the slightly peculiar position of wearing headphones or earbuds without turning them on, to muffle the sound but not eradicate it. The audio industry can however rest assured that I do occasionally use my headphones as designed. When reading lighter material, I sometimes have on either classical music or the ever-reassuringly dulcet tones of Radio Four.

‘Focus time’: I appreciate that module conveners and tutors don’t just set and recommend reading for the pure and unadulterated joy of it, and thus primarily out of a desire to understand the topic the reading is for, I try and do most of my digital reading as actively as possible. I endeavor to get through journal articles and chapters in one sitting, this for me being a much more efficient means to pick up the piece’s argument and key points. That being said, the propensity of some historians to write in unfettered gobbledygook means breaks are sometimes more than necessary. Overall, the method is very much going in hard and taking longer, less regular breaks.

Questions to be answered: The aforementioned new Google tab on my screen is used for looking stuff up whilst reading. I know this may seem a little hypocritical given the focus on the document at hand momentarily discussed, but I find it useful being able to clarify the meanings of particular words and cross-checking other stuff more broadly. Though walking something of a metaphorical tightrope with only being a few clicks from the infinite expanses of the internet, I generally manage to maintain focus.

Notes: I made no mention of a space for notes when describing my screen setup, because they are taken on paper, jotted down into a notebook – for both modules and dissertation reading. Over the last two years I’ve found the only way of ensuring my ability to understand the information before me is forcing the results of my active reading onto paper. This is more time consuming, but I deem it outweighed by the break it allows my fingers and eyes from the keyboard and screen respectively.

So, that is (roughly) how I do my digital reading. Other than a shift from word document to written notes, these have remained fairly consistent, and unperturbed by the pandemic. However, as much as I’m a child of this millennium, a ‘digital native’ if we may, there is still a lot about digital reading which I really don’t like, some of which bears raising.

Reading from a laptop simply cannot compete with the versatility of physical books. Their size and discreetness mean they can be whipped out in an instant when a decent amount of free time arises– on the tram, in the doctor’s waiting room, even during half-time at the football! In a similar vein, I detest how difficult it is to sit comfortably and stare at a screen. Headaches, and the painful spinal petrification of sitting in one position admittedly leaves me often looking, where it is practical to do so, for hard copies. This year I’ve gone so far as purchasing some books which I know I’ll be regularly returning to throughout the year, and really look forward to a major digital detox upon finishing my studies.

Nonetheless, digital reading is what we have, and isn’t worth devoting a diatribe against. It makes university education more environmentally friendly, and most importantly, more accessible. On a personal level, it certainly hasn’t stopped me from hugely enjoying pretty much everything I’ve studied whilst at university and sets me in good stead for the ever more digitised world of employment into which I shall soon step.

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