Listening to John Brown’s biography & “book-googling it”: How we interact with technologies

I promised a student I would blog about this. So, here it is.

Today, in my Topics 4004 seminar course, a student seemed to have coined a phrase that reflects how the academic world interacts with new technologies.


These days in class we are listening and reading Evan Carton’s biography of John Brown, at about three chapters per class (two x week). I think that finishing the semester with an exciting reading is a good idea. This is part of adapting to the semester’s rhythms, understanding that after the Thanks Giving Break professors are not unlike lame duck incumbents. Since the students have reached the point of diminishing returns, this couple of weeks require a different approach, like changing gears as we near our destination.


Carton’s book reads well. In fact, on the first day reading it, I overheard a student commenting that she would rank Carton’s book on the same level as Harry Potter’s series in regard to narrative appeal and reading ease. But we do more than simply reading it. We listen to Michael Prichard narrate the book while checking on the text every now and then.

Most of the activities in the classroom require familiarity with the text and with the narration. One of the intentions of this new, if not odd, approach to reading, is to bring students closer to the subjects of study by engaging one more sense in the way we read. This goes along with recent literature on multiple intelligences and on the various ways we learn. The listening part is made easier, and more interesting, when the reader is a professional narrator, an actor with book-narrating experience.

book words

Since the emphasis is on the listening part, students can get their text through multiple sources. Some have the actual hardcopy. Others have it in a pdf format. The latter is the most common one, and it happened that for today’s chapters the file was not OCR’ed (OCR). This means that they could not use control-F key to find keywords. This set the context for a problem in need of solution.

Today’s in-class exercise required students to find the chronological order of 12 quotes I had selected from the book. The idea was that students would reconstruct the order of the events in the quotes and discuss their importance. So, after explaining the instructions they got collaborating with each other to find the quotes in the book.

book google

The frustration among those with the book in pdf format was evident from the start. Differently from what has happened before with OCR pdf files, today they did not have the advantage of using the control-F key to search for words in the text. But it did not take long for one of them to discover, or better said, “to remember” that Book Google could replace the control-F key function. In other words, it could serve in a similar manner as if having a pdf file that has been OCR’ed (OCR). Because of the types of activities, we perform in class, I require students to bring their laptops or tablets to class. And this student, as if hit by an epiphany, said out loud, we can “book-google it,” and so they did. And soon all were “book-googling it” and quickly found the quotes’ order.


It is common knowledge that the verb, “to google” has replaced longer phrases like, “to search the Internet.” Now I see the beginning of a similar trend in speech to replace the phrase, “to search in book google” for “to book-google it.” Though dictionaries have yet to catch up, the term “to google” is now synonymous of “to search.”

engaged students

This event also showed me how in the student’s minds, the logic of one form of technology is easily transferable to another, as long as it serves similar purposes. In the end, what I witnessed today was adaptability and a deeper engagement with the reading material reflected in the students’ high participation level.


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