big brother watches what and how and how long you read . . . at college!!!

hello, dear readers

welcome to another edition of a naked library, where we wax nostalgic and not so nostalgic about … THE BOOK!

there’s a cadre of folks out there who seem to think that amazon, apple, google, facebook, twitter and all things electronic and social media-like are intrusive. that we give these companies, of course, by way of our own behavior, insight and information about us that they wouldn’t have been able to get before the advent of the internet.

for example, back in the day, no one would know what you were reading unless they a) visited your home and perused your bookshelves (bookshelves, how quaint…they’re now called just plain shelves) b) they rode the same train or bus with you and could see the cover (check out undergroundnewyorkpubliclibrary) or c) produced a court order to your local public library or bookstore.

recently, several articles have poppoed up about data mining by companies such as amazon,apple and google about what their customers are reading. this wall street journal article, Your E-Book Is Reading You, reports on just how much information is being mined by these companies. and it’s not just the big three. booksellers and publishers are in on the game as well. as an avid reader of e-books, i was appalled, yet fascinated, by this article. luckily, i’m one of those people who don’t care. but lots of people DO.

but now, the new great idea of the 21st century has arrived thanks to coursesmart. coursesmart provides e-textbooks and e-resources to hundreds of colleges, universities and college bookstores across the country. drum roll, please . . . it’s data mining!!! okay, that’s not new. you got me.

but data mining from college kids using e-books? yes, that IS new. and three schools have signed up for the trial: Texas A&M, Rasmussen College and Villanova University.

the first i read of this was from, a website that keeps up with all things tablet. the headline: Three U.S. universities to pilot eBook program that monitors how students read. intrigued? so was i.  and, as always, i had been looking for a topic for the next installment of this fine, literary blog, so… i googled it (yes, i know! i’m a googler and i won’t apologize for it!!!)

anyway, i read this short article and the two things that jumped out at me were, “The project…will allow lecturers to drilldown into specific usage details like the amount of time students spend reading, the number of pages read as well as tracking any notes input into the text.”

secondly, “With the CourseSmart dashboard, professors will be better able to fine-tune lesson plans, critique student performance, and even tailor suggestions for specific students on how to study more effectively to help them stay on track and stay in school…”

suspicious person that i am, the first thing that sprung to mind was . . . BIG BROTHER!! but, just to confirm, i went to that vaunted resource of knowledge and truth . . . the chronicle (of higher education). they had an article entitled, “Now E-Textbooks Can Report Back on Students’ Reading Habits,” and that confirmed my suspicions. see those words, “report back?” aye, there’s the rub.

from the chronicle article: “Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.”

really?? and privacy be damned? haven’t we all known the slacker who gets an A? do they need to be harassed by their professors for a “perceived” lack of engagement? okay, i digressed to my soapbox. but i’m serious.

more from the chronicle, “Isn’t it a bit creepy to have textbooks watching their users?…answer, “Not if it helps you succeed.”

really? so the end justifies the means? (pulling soapbox out).

at the end of the wsj article, an author is quoted as saying that she often wondered if someone stopped reading her book after 3 pages and now she can see that they read it for a week. well, maybe they stopped reading for any NUMBER of reasons: it stank, it wasn’t what they thought, it burned in the fireplace, they loaned it to a friend who lost it, they got married, they got divorced, they got arrested. you see my point? data is only a snapshot of a moment of a moment of a moment in time. it has no context.

secondly, humans are, well, human. we are, for the most part, optimistic. and we like happy endings. the prince gets the princess, the bad guy goes to jail (or blows up in a fiery explosion or falls down an icy abyss). but that’s not always how stories go…and that’s a good thing.

sure, we’re happy for elizabeth and mr darcy and can you really see wesley and buttercup apart? but why does forrest gump lose jenny? or scarlett lose rhett? or george lose lenny?
does it say something about us that we can mourn a fictional spider as if she were our kin? or the lessons learned there within?

imho, writers should write what they feel, not what they think readers want. because in the end, we don’t know what we want (or need) and that’s why we depend on the heavy hitters like austin, hemingway and steinbeck. the one-hit wonders (or wonderfuls) like margaret mitchell and harper lee. and even the jk rowlings, stephanie meyers and suzanne collins. to show us something we didn’t know and didn’t know we wanted (or needed) to know.

i have fallen in love, cried at loss, railed against injustice, laughed til i cried, thunk a lot of thoughts and looked at my world just a little bit differently every time. all at the hand of an author who wrote a story. just a story…

let’s not eliminate serendipity from the dictionary…not just yet, anyway. besides, the fact that it’s one of my favorite words, i love the word origin of serendipity, courtesy of etymonline:

1754 (but rare before 20c.), coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” The name is from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Skt. Simhaladvipa “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.” Serendipitous formed c.1950.
happy reading . . . no matter the format!
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