Dreaming in TXT

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I earned a couple of memorable C’s in my academic history. One was for my capricious foray into physics, which I took as a college elective in an effort to follow the cryptic conversations my physics-major best friend had with her science pals. The other was in fifth grade handwriting. My teacher was appalled at my sloppy penmanship. She sent home a note to my mom, and they both stepped up the practice sessions … to no avail. Two years later, my grandmother bought me my first typewriter. I am forever indebted.

I recently read a column titled, “Stop Teaching Handwriting” (Good, March/April 2008, p. 103) written by a mom who wishes educators would “stop brutalizing our kids with years of drills on the proper formation of a cursive capital S.” At first my Luddite hackles rose: Imagine not teaching the fundamentals before keyboarding. However, Anne Trubek, who is a college professor and freelance writer, proffered a compelling case for the demise of cursive script in the “history of writing technologies” saying “it’s time to consign to the trash heap this artificial way of making letters, along with clay tablets, smoke signals, and other arcane technologies.”

The demise of cursive would be good news for us handwriting-challenged, as well as for anyone who has to decipher our script. Yet while Trubek has me convinced I need cursive about as much as I need an abacus (okay, abacuses are pretty cool), several studies suggest that good handwriting skills help children learn to better express their thoughts.

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT for the class of 2006, only 15% wrote answers in cursive; the rest printed. Interestingly, the cursive essays had slightly higher average scores than those written in print according to the College Board. (Leading me to wonder if there’s a bias that those written in cursive were better because of penmanship, not necessarily because of their composition.) A study released by Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham last November reports that a majority of primary school teachers believe that students with fluent handwriting produce superiorly composed assignments. I question the idea that mastering cursive script is what helps children better express themselves through words. We may not be poets, but Trubek and I both make a living by our effective use of the language. I posit that the process of teaching handwriting often takes the form of copying significant quotations or keenly crafted phrases. At a more advanced level, it takes shape in writting essays and journals. A loving exploration of the written word—cursive, Gutenberg-pressed, or keystroked—would certainly impact any youngster’s ability to craft expressive prose and imbue a value of self-expression.

Yet while I might not see a direct correlation between prettily drawn words and polished prose, I did once asked my cousin—who was studying communication in college—to stop emailing me abbreviated instant-message-style missives. I don’t speak that language. (At best, I’m a nonnative speaker, forever slow and awkward and rarely up on the latest short text lingo). I suggested that this eloquent woman view our email exchanges as writing exercises in which she exert herself by spelling out words in their entirety (exhausting, I know), stretching out her pinkies to hit the Shift key to capitalize words, and taking the briefest pause to place a punctuation mark to signal the stop of one thought so that I can keenly anticipate the next (amazing how I rely on these arcane cues). She mocked me for being old-fashioned, but she kindly complied and agreed that it might help to think about the process of writing outside of homework assignments.

The rise of instant communication, user-generated content, blogs, and wikis has opened my eyes to innumerable possibilities for communication. However, it has also reinforced a misconception that I’ve confronted my entire professional life: The notion so many individuals have that, if they cared to, they could easily be writers. That if they had the time or inclination, all they need do is set pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and compose with the greats. It’s sort of like looking at a Jackson Pollock and saying you can “throw paint just as good.” I could throw paint, too, but I wouldn’t claim to throw it well. In fact, I’m not at all certain what a well-crafted splatter entails.

There are tools to every trade, evolving in kind. At their core, ideas seek expression—through brush strokes or keystrokes, script or scripts. Like the arts in which ideas so often take shape, their value is in how they are received.

While I might question the idea that any- and everyone could be a writer, I welcome it. I am grateful for the tools that make ever more voices audible and wonder what would be revealed by a study of third graders who could, with the tutelage of their teachers, write their own blogs. Would that they move past an ill-wrought S and on to the next generation of digitally empowered communication.