Saturday, May 05, 2007

On Paper

Although computer files, .pdf, .doc, etc. are very useful, they have their limits. While it is handy to be able to move files around and store them by e-mail, on CDs and on flash drives, there are still cases where paper is still the best medium.

It is now the time of the semester, when I have to deal with a great deal of paper. My graduate students are completing their research projects. The undergrads are handing in their final papers. There is a lot of paper in my life at the moment!

Some students have started asking recently whether they can e-mail their papers to me. I know that some institutions require this, so that papers can be checked against plagiarism databases. Although I am a huge fan of e-mail in most contexts, this is not one of them. In addition to the ever present danger of the kind of virus that can hide in common file types (.doc files are particularly bad for this), there are often issues which can arise with printing papers out. In my experience, printers are amongst the least reliable bits of computer technology. They especially like to go wrong, run out of toner, etc. when the pressure is on. I think that Mr. Murphy, of the famous law, secretly haunts printers, especially at this time of the semester.

The great thing about a paper in hard copy is that one has space, margins and between the lines, where one can make comments. Not only is this useful for the students, as it gives them feedback on their work (if they read the comments, something I am never entirely certain about), it is also useful to me to help me remember what is happening in the paper being graded. When going through many papers on the same, or very similar topics, during the usual necessary grading marathon, there is always a danger of getting the faults of one paper confused with another one. Thus, being able to leave comments, like a trail of breadcrumbs, actually helps with the grading process.

So, although it is kind of 'retro' and perhaps a bit 'fuddy-duddy', I quite like paper in this kind of context. I have seen software that purports to provide many similar functions, but have seldom found it satisfactory. Almost always, one runs into version compatibility issues and the like. One then spends time fighting the technology, when one could be grading. This is not a helpful outcome.

Another great advantage of papers that come in on paper is that they are eminently portable. If the weather is nice, one can easily carry the papers, a couple of pens, the questions sheet and the class list to whatever location one desires. One can grade in the park, one can grade at a cafe, one can grade in the office, or at home, depending on one's mood. I often like to move around, when grading, so I think that this is an especially strong advantage.

As I turn my attention to the stack of papers I have waiting for me, I rejoice that these papers are still printed on paper.

The CP

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