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ASU students to study the classics — without opening a book

ASU Professor Ted Humphrey will teach a class using the Kindle instead of traditional textbooks. (Photo by Bill Coates)

ASU Professor Ted Humphrey will teach a class using the Kindle instead of traditional textbooks. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Philosophy Professor Ted Humphrey plans to share his appreciation of the classics with 40 to 60 incoming students this fall, assigning them more than a dozen works – from Aeschylus to Virgil.

Academically, it’s a heavy load. But in the a strict Newtonian sense, all those hundreds of thousands of words will weigh little more than a loaf of bread. That’s because Humphrey’s students will not be reading between the covers of standard textbooks.

They’ll be delving into the classics on a Kindle DX, the latest version of Amazon.com’s e-book reader. It’s part of a pilot program in which students in Humphrey’s Human Events course will come to class with all their assigned reading downloaded onto to a Kindle.

And if anybody’s caught trying to sneak in an actual book, Humphrey will tell them: “Take it back to your room. Bring your Kindle. We’re working from Kindles.”

Humphrey spoke of his upcoming Kindle-based course from
his office at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. On this mid-summer day – no classes to teach – the honors college-founding dean was casually dressed. As a well-read professor, he has more than his share of actual books, some of them already boxed for a move to the new home of the honors college on the southern edge of the Tempe campus.

But Humphrey latched on to the Kindle last summer, when he went to South America on a research trip.

“I took a group of about 20 to 25 students to the Ecuadorian Amazon … and was facing the prospect of carrying a couple of trucks full of books with me,” Humphrey says.

His own research called for an eclectic mix, including the complete works of Shakespeare, “Moby Dick” and Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” He had already considered using the Kindle. With it, he could download all the reading he needed for research and pleasure into one handy device. No truck necessary.

He bought the original Kindle, the only model available at the time, for $429. It weathered the jungle and won over Humphrey. On returning to ASU, he says, “I really wanted to push through using Kindle in my classes.”
But the first Kindle-in-the-classroom effort didn’t get far. It was a pilot program involving ASU and some 35 other institutions of higher learning. It was the middle of the academic year. Amazon quickly ran into problems.

Amazon, Humphrey says, “immediately found that the university textbook environment is far more complex than it had imagined.”

The complexity arose from the fact that professors adopt their own textbooks. There is no one calculus text for ASU, as there might be for an entire high school district.
“The calculus courses on this campus could use five or six different texts,” Humphrey says.

Many of them simply weren’t available in the Kindle format. Amazon ended up pulling the plug on the project, Humphrey says.

The new pilot program has been pared down to five universities. Along with ASU, they include Princeton, Case Western, Reed College, Darden School of Business and the University of Virginia.

When Amazon first put out request for proposals on the new pilot, Humphrey was front-and-center in getting ASU to sign on. Despite the Kindle’s price, he saw it as a way for students to save on books, particularly if they could be purchased in bulk for half price. But he wanted to see how it would work in the classroom.

“We just went very aggressively after the grant, and we had a number of important things to bring to the table,” Humphrey says.

For one, as a large state university, ASU presented Amazon with huge market potential. For another, Humphrey himself had a national reputation for educational innovation. The program calls for the purchase of 70 Kindle DXs at the retail price of $489 each, with ASU and Amazon splitting the tab.

ASU’s portion amounts to $17,115.

For Humphrey’s students, the Kindles will have a value-added reading list.

It’s a list of 15 books you might find in any bookstore with a well-stocked classics section. But Humphrey prefers using works published by Hackett Publishing Co. in Indianapolis, which specializes in scholarly texts and translations. Humphrey has a long-running relation with the publisher, assigning Hackett publications for his courses throughout his academic career. Hackett, in turn, agreed to put the Human Events readings in Kindle format.

That’s a big investment for Hackett, Humphrey says.
“It costs 50 to 75 cents a page to convert a text,” he says.

For students, the payoff adds up to more than having a lot of books in a relatively small package (about 10-by-7 inches and a less than a half-inch thick). They also can highlight passages, make notes on the screen and search for passages by their digital locations, in addition to flipping to footnotes at the touch of a button.

Humphrey’s students will have free use of the Kindle DX. But they’ll pay for the downloaded books themselves. Prices have yet to be set. The Kindle uses a wireless connection to let readers download books from a store of publications – pegged at some 300,000 titles.

The Kindle DX will hold as many as 3,500 titles, though the yardstick for that likely is not “Moby Dick.”

For some, the prospect of going from hardcopy to high tech might seem a bit daunting. It did not, however, dampen any enthusiasm for Humphrey’s class.

“Almost the moment that we announced that we were doing this,” Humphrey says, “we started having phone calls from parents, from students (asking) ‘how do we get into this?’”

Once they’re accepted into the honors college and the seminar, students become part of the experiment – that means no hardcopies in class – to see how they handle the all-Kindle approach.

“We’re trying to figure how this will work in an instructional environment,” Humphrey says. “And we’d like to know what its pluses and minuses are.”

What the pluses and minuses are for ASU’s bookstores remains an open question. In an e-mail, ASU bookstores Associate Director Dennis Mekelburg noted he was unable to predict how much the Kindle will cut into sales – in the long- or the short-run. Right now, sales amount to $22 million a year, Mekelburg says.

Without knowing more about the Kindle program, Mekelburg
says, “It’s impossible to estimate what loss of revenues might be, if any.”

Mekelburg says, e-books count for less than one-half of 1 percent of textbooks sold. Not all e-books are sold through Kindle, he adds. And many e-textbooks have a six-month to one-year license. They are not purchased for life, Mekelburg says.

While digitized textbooks may come and go, the Kindles likely will remain with the honors students throughout their four-year college career. And perhaps beyond that.

“For the students going through the agony of a pilot, who go all the way through, who fully participate in the questionnaires and all of that, their takeaway – besides an education – is they get the Kindle,” Humphrey says.

Many more ASU students might have an option to buy Kindles of their own. ASU is negotiating a contract with Amazon that would let students and faculty members buy Kindles at a discount, Humphrey says.

“Probably not this year, but I don’t know. You’d be surprised how much in process this is,” Humphrey says with a bit of a laugh.

In his own Kindle-based course, one thing won’t change. And that’s the idea of reading critically and talking about issues from differing points of view.

“They have to watch their values being challenged,” Humphrey says. “And you have to learn to deal with those issues as an educated person, as a lady or a gentleman.”

Then again, Human Events is not all talk. Students are expected to write a big paper as well. Likely many will do so without ever cracking a real book. If the pilot proves successful, tomorrow’s students won’t need to drag a backpack full of books around campus. They’ll just walk into class carrying everything they need to know in one thin e-reader.

It’s a future that Humphrey appears to embrace. But that doesn’t mean he has abandoned real books for their digital doppelgangers.

“I collect books,” he says. “I’m a lifelong collector of editions of ‘Moby Dick.’”

For more than a dozen years, however, one rare edition had eluded him – the 1979 printing of “Moby Dick” by the University of California’s Arion Press. It is as much art as literature, printed on hand-laid paper with specially designed typeface and illustrations from engraved wood cuts.

Humphrey pursued the Arion edition with the tenacity of Captain Ahab himself. And just as Ahab finally caught up to the White Whale, Humphrey tracked down the rare book. But Humphrey fared better than Ahab in the end. He took home the book, though it didn’t come cheap.

“I wrote a very healthy check for that,” he says.

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