Thursday, May 9, 2013
As the academic year winds down, many of us academics and scholars are engaged right now intensively in either grading or writing. I just finished grading a group of final papers from my Consumer Law students. I was, as usual, pleased by some of the excellent, elegant writing that I saw, but frustrated by some of the writing that showed signs of the cut-and-paste-from-electronic-sources-and-hope-the-structure-will-be-evident approach that seems to characterize a lot of writing these days. (And not just student writing. This is a frequent complaint I hear from my husband, a judge who increasingly encounters this in court filings.)
I'm also working intensely on some of my own writing, and I find myself this morning at my computer, surrounded by piles of note cards covered with my handwritten scribbles, organized into piles that correspond to the themes I want to address in my paper. The process of scribbling out those note cards while I research something is never efficient. It always takes much more time to get through books when I'm taking these sorts of notes than it would be if I just read the book & tagged important sections with sticky tabs, or even if I typed the 'important quotes' directly onto my computer. I often think there must be a quicker way to do some of this, but I can't bring myself to work any other way when I'm really trying to think something through.
This morning, I read a book review in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I think will ease my mind about this process, and explain why I was so happy to drive my 12-year old daughter to Target to buy her some more note cards that she wanted to use for studying. It was a review of a new book by Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. Robert Bliwise, the reviewer, explains:
Hensher's overarching idea is that we're at a cultural tipping point: This is "a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether," he writes. He wonders whether that vanishing act will point to a more profound phenomenon. "Is anything going to be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper? Will some part of our humanity, as we have always understood it, disappear as well?"
I haven't read the book yet, but the review focuses mostly on Hensher's concern that what will disappear is all the signals about the individuality of the hand-writer -- in Catholic terms, perhaps, the aspect of the words that reveals the human person behind the ideas. I wonder, though, if the transition to an all-mechanical world of writing might also carry some cost in terms of the content of the writing itself. Bliwise writes:
Hensher says his creative-writing students increasingly resist the idea of the handwritten journal and the practice of taking notes by hand. Handwriting, he suggests, slows us down, and we can't think deeply without slowing down. The very best students are "the ones who take out a piece of paper and a pen" in the classroom—the ones who "write down the things that they think are interesting as you talk, making sense of it as they go."
If all op-ed authors had to hand write their opinions before they could be published, if T.V. and radio pundits had to hand write their thoughts before reading them on air, if all bloggers had to hand write their posts before posting, might that positively influence what is commonly seen as the 'cheapening' of public discourse? ( ..... I write, on-line, mechanically, without having put pen or pencil to paper myself yet today...)