“The Ethos of Paper” by Catherine Prendergast and Roman Licko is a must-read for anyone interested in writing technologies and writing economies. What a fascinating (and depressing) account of paper consumption in an American university contrasted with a Slovakian one. Along the way, the authors make visible cultural and ideological associations with paper in the respective cultures under investigation. They argue successfully that paper is a ubiquitous technology, often overlooked in discussion of technologies because of its, well, ubiquity.
This study made me alarmingly aware of the amount of paper waste generated in our department (not to mention the culture at large) on a regular basis without much thought or concern: flyers, memos, administrative paper trail, student work, and on and on. The cross-cultural investigation in this essay reveals the taken-for-granted status of paper in American universities. For example, Licko notes that in his department, faculty members are allotted 70 sheets of paper per month. I think some of our faculty would have a major conniption about this kind of limitation; Prendergast gives some indication of paper reliance in university cultures when she reports on a faculty member in her department who does not use email. The dept secretary makes hard copies for this person to accommodate his (ridiculous! unacceptable!) preference (one that also affects the committees on which he’ll serve, and so forth). I’d love to circulate this article on my dept listserv, but I’d worry about getting hate mail!
I like their point about how we often “teach” paper “by replicating a sheet of paper within a digital environment, and require that students format their digital work as if it were to be printed on paper eventually, even where we intend only electronic submission” (209). This seems to me a very important point about delivery ideologies (as opposed to methods).
Response essay in the same issue by Lisa Arnold pairs well with this essay and others in this special issue (based on 2010 Watson conference). Arnold notes that this work really calls attention to what counts as “writing” in the field these days. Also, P&L’s essay is an excellent companion to Dennis Baron’s A Better Pencil, which I’m reading right now…