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Writing BY HAND

posted: 7.16.14 by Nedra Reynolds

At the end of my last post, I vowed to “spend some time this summer thinking about assignments or activities that will ask students to spend just a little more time in the deep end.”

The deep end, of course, requires actual swimming and not just floating, paddling, or splashing around. It has become challenging to engage students in complex texts (their own or others’) when their brains are becoming addicted to distractions, as Nicholas Carr discusses in The Shallows.

So what is a writing teacher to do?  First, students should be encouraged to unplug when it’s appropriate and to be able to interact with a number of writing technologies. That’s why I’m going to ask students to “get out a pen and a piece of paper” more often, at least in my traditional, face-to-face classes.  I’m considering devoting 5 or 10 minutes of every class meeting to writing, quietly, by hand. This may sound shockingly old-school, but evidence is mounting that handwriting and thinking may be linked quite closely.  Some research suggests that taking notes by hand (rather than by keyboarding) allowed students to learn the material better; it’s at least possible that the act of writing with pen or pencil fires different cognitive synapses or (I’m guessing here) helps the brain slow down a bit and create more permanent connections.  A professor of neuroscience has argued that if Common Core eliminates cursive writing from curricula, students’ brain development will suffer.

Writing by hand involves haptics, a field of study devoted to touch and touch communication.  There seems to be movement towards approaching the humanist disciplines through the science of haptics, as shown in this article from 2011.

Of course, as I read about “What’s Lost” with new technologies, I’m mindful of Plato’s arguments against writing and his worry that writing would ruin people’s memories.  But since he made that argument in writing, as Jasper Neel’s brilliant book taught me so many years ago, it’s hard to take that fear seriously.  Similarly, it’s hard to take seriously any hyperbolic claims that handwriting will “disappear” or that its disappearance would be disastrous for humankind. But there’s no doubt that fewer and fewer students are learning cursive, and the concerns seem real to me, as this New York Times article outlines.

If writing BY HAND helps learners/writers to go deeper into a sea of words, then I’m all for it, and if students’ lives are so frantic and fast-paced that they can never find ten minutes of peace and quiet to “Just Write,” then I’d like to give them that time.

As the pendulum swings and all good ideas come around again, I think that as we embrace web-based learning tools (for peer review or discussions, for example), we shouldn’t neglect pen and paper and what potential they have for writing to learn or for writing as discovery.  In fact, I just bought some new stationery, and I’ve got some old-fashioned letter writing on my to-do list.

How about you?

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