The Mysteries of Handwriting by Kevin Sebastian

posted Oct 6, 2016, 3:27 PM by Writing Center   [ updated Oct 11, 2016, 11:04 AM ]
One thing that we do in the Writing Center is ask students to bring two copies of their work. This usually warrants an explanation especially if a student is consulting for the very first time, and for me it goes like this: “In order for you [the student] to improve your writing, it is necessary to learn self-editing strategies that you can take with you for those times when you are unable to receive feedback from others. Therefore, I will write comments on one copy, and if you find my feedback worthwhile, you write on the second copy. By marking up your own work with annotations, which involve alterations and suggestions that we discuss, you not only free yourself from the natural hesitation that comes with rewriting what you have written, but also develop a critical eye that allows you to objectively evaluate the quality of your writing. This also keeps you engaged in our combined efforts at improving your work.” Or something like that. If I manage to remember to say “engage,” students usually accept whatever iteration of the explanation that I actually give.

On a more fundamental level, asking students to annotate their own work forces them to make handwritten notes. This might make me sound like a crotchety pedant with dated philosophies, but in an age where we can document our thoughts and ideas as fast as we can type them on our newfangled, electronified doodads seemingly powered by disembodied sprites who are kin to Prospero’s Ariel (Siri, Cortana, and Alexa to name a few), and publish these thoughts and ideas and share them with those who also inhabit the WORLD WIDE WEB (practically everyone), the convention of handwriting has gotten as lost in our writing traditions as you probably are in this long sentence. However, handwriting still exists: in to-do lists, in class notebooks, in marginal scribbles on textbook pages, in grocery lists. But in the context of the composing of essays or any other form of writing beyond the mere jottings-down aimed at jogging our memories, how valuable is handwriting? Further, how soon will our doodads replace even the kind of note-taking scrawled on scraps of scrap paper I identify with handwriting? I can’t say for certain.

What I can say certainly is that my passion for handwriting originates from my history as a student and maybe even my cultural upbringing. I vaguely remember the feeling of my strained fingers after each penmanship class in second grade. Learning to write in cursive and in print required rigorously repeating a letter’s majuscule and miniscule forms in ruled notebooks stamped with our Catholic school’s logo. Later on in the sixth-grade, all the boys were required to take a practical arts course (which involved woodwork among other things), and this is when I learned typographical terms like ascender and descender. (This is also when I learned how much I enjoyed writing in cursive script much more than struggling to perfect print.) In my first college composition course, students were required to hand-write all their essays on the college’s stationery, and consistent with previous experience, my then-college was Catholic too. It was only when I took a philosophy course in a secular school did I even realize the existence of handwriting’s possible value; our professor suggested that we summarize each of our dense, philosophical readings by hand because, as he suggested, there is something to be said in the interactions between the mind and the body when we give form to the letters that make up a word that make up the sentence that make up the meaning of the text. What that something is, he wasn’t sure — he was a philosopher and not a scientist after all.

Like my philosophy professor, I can’t tell you exactly what the absolute value handwriting adds to composing essays. There are those who argue that handwriting and penmanship are following the dinosaurs to extinction, and that our devices are already replacing how we primarily document and produce information. On the other hand, there are those who believe that handwriting engages (there’s that word again) our brain in ways that typing cannot, and so this helps us grapple with complex ideas (just observe mathematicians working out their formulas on paper). I can only tell you that in writing this blog entry, I sketched out my ideas in my notebook, typed them on my computer, printed the document, annotated it by hand, and retyped these developments while further working out how to improve a particular sentence. I can also tell you that when we ask students visiting the Writing Center to mark their own papers, we do it not out of laziness or spite. In my experience, students are able to better understand their writing when they physically interact with the page as opposed to having a computer screen where they can easily replace a problematic or erroneous word. Underlining the same word, encircling it, or even writing “replace” next to it leaves a reminder to the student of what needs to be done and perhaps even illustrates for them the nature of the problem. On a screen, it is so easy to hit the delete button and forget that there even was a problem.