Belated Blog Post: Yet more on handwriting

It’s been a super-busy week around here at EMU and it promises to be even more busy next week. Our department is hiring two positions in literature and a department head. The department head position in particular means a lot of meetings and hallway discussions. And of course other business in the department goes on. Counting things having to do with job candidates and other events I either have to attend or things I should attend (and not counting stuff like teaching and office hours), I have nine meetings and/or “events” on my calendar next week. Eek.

Anyway, Nick Carbone sent me a link to the Inside Higher Ed article “The Surprising Process of Writing” by Shari “the Nomad Scholar and not her real name” Wilson. The basic premise of the essay is Wilson thinks her students write better essays when they write them out by hand. She offers a series of explanations for this: “the process of writing in-class in a timed situation seemed to discourage the kind of overwrought, constipated writing that some students produce with a typed paper;” “handwriting encourages students to focus on the writing process;” and, most problematically, “handwriting brings writers closer to their work — which may encourage excellence with particular students.”

Most of the comments on the Inside Higher Ed site basically says “this doesn’t seem right to me,” there was some discussion on the WPA-L mailing list about why this argument doesn’t ring true, and I of course feel the same way. But quite frankly, the explanation as to why Wilson thought her students’ handwritten work was better than the typed assignments strikes me as obvious: the writing situations were different.

The handwritten assignments were in-class writings, and while Wilson doesn’t give examples of any assignments, I would assume that the in-class assignments were a great deal more specific in terms of subject and purpose than the out-of-class assignments. An in-class assignment might be something like “In her chapter in the assigned reading, Smith makes three points about ‘X;’ explain one of them and why you agree or disagree.” Or maybe “Compare these specific Smith and Jones readings.” In contrast, I would guess/bet the out-of-class assignments are quite a bit less specific– “Tell your reader about an important event” or something like that– and there may have been additional burdens, like providing some research.

So what I’m suggesting here is the handwritten assignments were “better” because students had a clearer sense of purpose (answer this question) and they had a clearer sense of audience (no one else is going to read this; this is from me to Wilson, or whatever her real name is). Simple as that.

Wilson writes that she “typed up a student’s handwritten midterm and compared it to two computer-generated essays,” but I don’t think that’s a fair test. If she really wants to make this comparison (and by the way, I think it is ultimately an idiotic comparison because the vast majority of writing tasks our students complete in school and elsewhere are done at the keyboard anyway), why not ask students to complete an out-of-class writing assignment by hand? Why not arrange for one of these in-class assignments be done in a computer lab someplace? That would be a more realistic test, seems to me.

All I know is this: I was teaching a class a few years ago where there was an in-class writing activity– an essay test, if I recall. For reasons not worth explaining, I was able to give students a choice between writing their exam out by hand or using a computer. I thought that maybe five or six out of the 20 or so students might take me up on the computer offer. To my surprise, all 20 students opted for the computer, and when I asked them why, the answer (with a shrug) was basically “this is how I write.”

2 thoughts on “Belated Blog Post: Yet more on handwriting”

  1. Absolutely. Much as I hate “the train is on the tracks” rationales for computer-assisted writing, with word processing, we’re really even beyond that point–the train has arrived at the terminal, the passengers have left, and our going about their business. For writing, we need to look at testing and what is happening at k-12 to dull the ingenuity of and engagement of growing writers, I think.

    Except, I still find it easier to write things like poetry with pen and pencil. I think it is the tactile feel of the process. And for brainstorming, I still get a lot out of legal pads and sometimes even butcher paper and markers. But, as you say, this has a lot to do with the rhetorical situations.

  2. This semester I’ve gone back to letting my basic writing students choose between handwriting and computing for drafts, thinking that some might be more comfortable doing as you do, Dan. And three weeks into the semester, some are. Others prefer to begin with typing and drafting on the computer. I don’t have a great many theoretical reasons picked out to answer why this is, but I suspect that drafting/learning styles have something to do with it, as well as frequency in writing and in writing online.

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