Texas A&M guest lecturer embraces skepticism in lecture on ‘The Future of the Book’

Samantha Ruvolo, Contributing Writer

Laura Mandell, professor of English literature and director of the initiative for digital humanities, media and culture at Texas A&M University, gave a lecture titled “The Future of the Book” on Feb. 7 in the Traditional Reading Room of the Bertrand Library.

The lecture focused on recent technological advancements that have impacted the digital humanities and the way students interact with written works. Mandell expressed her support for these innovations and her vision for converting monographs, which are specialized works of literature, to a more accessible medium.

“Only by recasting the monograph as a virtual research environment (VRE) can we insist upon the need for the humanistic critical thinking,” Mandell said.

The lecture began with two introductory speeches for Mandell. These introductions provided a brief summary of Mandell’s experiences leading up to the event, which encompassed spending two days at the University to meet with students, give guest speeches for classes, and participate in various informal talks across campus. “The Future of the Book” was the second of four lectures that Mandell will be presenting before returning to Texas A&M.

Not only is Mandell a respected professor and author of various works on the cognitive consequences of physical books, but she is also a digital humanist, a field of study at the crossroads between computing technology and the humanities. Mandell argues that digital media can influence published works. She is currently working to move monographs to the online world, thus making them more accessible to the public.

Throughout the lecture, Mandell presented many examples of monographs in the digital world. The transition has allowed published works to become more interactive and collaborative. Readers can now discuss the subject of the monograph, peer review the work, and leave their own personal comments on the documents. These monographs can also compare different editions of the same book, enabling experts to catch misquotations and detect words that are associated with specific genres.

Associate Professor of Comparative Humanities John Hunter, one of the University faculty members in attendance, explained the significance of this development.

“A reader would thus open one of these VREs and see not just one scholar’s point of view but an ongoing debate into which he or she could make a contribution,” Hunter said.

The most important claim Mandell made during her lecture was that we need to abandon the idea that the content published in books are unchanging truths, a concept she referred to as “monograph thinking.”

“Instead, we should recognize that what we are doing is entering a debate and should present our work in a format that encourages this,” Hunter said.

After concluding her lecture, Mandell opened the floor for questions and critique from the audience. Mandell embraced any skepticism thrown at her and wrote down the arguments she thought were valid.

“I sincerely believe that whether my arguments are true or not is the least interesting thing about them,” Mandell said.

Many students in attendance expressed their interest in the lecture and the effect it could have on their learning experience in the near future.

“I can see my teachers using this to enhance the way we do homework assignments and readings. I always write comments down on my readings, but now teachers will have the ability to comment back,” Robbie Foresta ’20 said.

Bridget Shaffrey ’17 emphasized the necessity of the lecture and how it was “conducive to the discussion on importance of the digital humanities in an increasingly digital academic world.”

“Particularly, I felt that the discussion Mandell presented on the role of the reader and the critic allowed for the audience to think critically about the interactiveness of the text as both a cultural and academic ‘device.’ Overall, I thought it was a great lecture,” Shaffrey said.

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