A disclaimer at the start: I have terrible handwriting. (Privately, I blame my old-skool 3rd grade teacher, who was inclined to have me switch hands from left to right, which both was unsuccessful and exacerbated the fact that I skipped most of 2nd grade.) It’s one of two* reasons why I switched to electronic receipt of papers. Even if students weren’t reading my comments on their papers, it seemed only decent to give them a fighting chance of doing so.
Having said that, I was delighted by Laurie Fendrich’s recent post about handwriting and traditional writing pedagogy**in the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog. I do believe that writing by hand is more important and useful than many people seem to think, in part because it’s so slow. One of my favorite resources in composition and other writing classes is Edward P. J. Corbett & Robert J. Connors’s Style and Statement (Oxford UP, 1999). I like it in part because of the handy list of rhetorical figures, tropes, and schemes, which forms the basis of one of my favorite writing assignments. But there’s also the long section on the virtues of imitation, including “copying passages, word for word, from admired authors. This may strike you as being a rather brainless exercise, but it can teach you a great deal about the niceties of style” (88-89). The bit that’s relevant to discussions of handwriting is rule 2:
You must do this copying with a pencil or pen. Typing is so fast and so mechanical that you can copy off whole passages without paying any attention to the features of an author’s style. Copying by hand, you transcribe the passage at such a pace that you have time to observe the choice and disposition of words, the patterns of sentences, and the length and variety of sentences. (89)
From a certain point of view, one of the goals of first-year classes is usually to get students to notice: to stop and unpack or analyze things that had previously seemed self-evident or not worth considering. And I’m inclined to agree with Fendrich, Corbett, and Connors, that the very monotony and apparent pointlessness of certain kinds of tasks actually has cognitive value. The key to such assignments is that they’re slow–they disrupt our customary inattention to matters of style.
If I start trying to get students to switch hands, though, please slap me!
*The other is disease. Fewer hard copies = fewer germs.
** Yes, I also teach sentence diagramming in writing classes.