Paper used to be expensive. Centuries ago, writers, coveting their scarce paper resources, would sometimes wash away their words or paint over them in order to reuse the paper. A print form of wiping the slate clean, except with this method the original message remained beneath the new words, hidden vestiges of previous thoughts now abandoned or deemed unworthy of the limited paper supply. Those words laid covered for centuries until faint remains of the previous message would begin to show through the whitewash.

Technology of the 20th century allowed scholars to peer into this layer beneath and unearth the document’s original message, the first thoughts that the paper contained, opening up a whole new field of literary discovery. These hidden messages are now called a “palimpsests.” It literally means, “scraped (and used) again.”

Modern technology is now unlocking palimpsests of a different kind. When I was a classroom teacher, I had my students use Google Docs for writing and submitting their assignments. It’s a word processing program that is entirely web-based. I was marking students’ answers to questions about an article when I discovered that one student had completely misunderstood a question. We teachers hate this. It’s a waste. When this happens, we don’t know if student really knew the answer or not. The zero grade on that question is only representative of their misreading the question, not of their real knowledge. As I tinkered with some options in Google Docs, I discovered a way to peer beneath the surface of the student’s work, and to some degree, inside the student’s head.

I often check the document’s ‘Revision History’ to see how long it took the student to write the assignment. This is a feature that reveals previous versions of the document that were automatically saved along the way along with the dates and times the document was edited. When I did this, I first noticed that the student had started working on the assignment several days before it was due, always a good sign. I then clicked on “Show More Detailed Revisions,” which reveals the entire process that the student went through to the write the assignment, including everything they wrote and at what time, as well as all they wrote and erased. I could peel back the surface of the final document and see how the student got there. As I scraped away the layers and examined the student’s first attempts, I discovered that she had initially understood the question correctly. She had right answer; she understood what the question was about, but abandoned her thoughts, whitewashed away her words and unfortunately replaced them with something inferior.

Using new web-apps like Google Docs isn’t just convenient for me and my students, it doesn’t just save the trees or tap into the digital culture of young people. It opens up a whole new field of discovery, new access into a student’s mind as they wrote their work, how they pieced it together, what steps they took, how long it took them, what they removed and what they expanded on. I don’t just get to read their final answer, as I would if it were a paper assignment, or even a word processor file. Now, I can see under the surface and get a glimpse of what the student thought as they wrote. I can read their digital palimpsest.

One Thought to “Digital Palimpsests”

  1. And it’s probably worth everyone’s time to learn how to distribute their work (Google Docs and otherwise) with their revision history removed. 🙂

Leave a Comment