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Who Will Decode Aunt Martha's Hand: a Crisis of Writing and Reading?

Yesterday, I wrote a final exam essay question on the board in three parts: a quote from our course reader, the actual essay question, and instructions for responding. Given the brevity of the essays turned in, I might guess that the students had difficulty generating ideas for writing in an exam situation--even after three good discussions of the material--but what I didn't expect was that the students might have had difficulty reading my handwriting. I had the day before the exam considered typing the prompt and handing it out, but that would have been a waste of paper, a third at most of a sheet being used. In this case, however, the consequence of saving paper was that the students struggled to write one page, and, as they did so, they looked with a mixture of dissonance and physical pain between their empty sheets and the chalkboard. Somehow this situation yesterday felt new to me though I'm aware that asking students to write under pressure has been an issue for many years.

With this peculiar testing situation, however, I was as embarrassed as one student, who, after about five minutes into the exam, asked, "Could you read that?" pointing to the prompt, which I had already read aloud once to the class. I was struck with a moment of vanity and almost moved to defend my script, which has always been remarked upon as beautiful. Over the years, my hand has become more artistic I admit, almost like calligraphy, points and angles taking over the smooth curves and loops I was taught to form back in third grade. Handwriting that might be tortuous for some has become easy for me as my hand moves gracefully across a chalkboard. Twenty, even ten, years ago, my showing off my excellent penmanship dazzled students. Now, very recently, I'd say in just the last few years, my cherished art has become a wedge between me and the current generation of students.

I wish that I could believe that this problem is easily solved by my preparing only word processed and printed course materials, or, better yet, items placed on course delivery systems such as Blackboard, but my feeling is that doing so would address the practical aspect of the problem while ignoring or conceding a more troubling matter: why my students aren't at all interested in reading script. When I was much younger than they are now, graduating from printing to cursive writing was a certain rite of passage that unlocked my mother's and my older siblings' scribblings. My ability to read "twentieth-century handwriting" initiated me into a club that allowed me entry into the world of my grandmother and aunt, who wrote to each other letters between Detroit and Chicago. This aunt set a standard of beauty for me because of the care she took to make sure that her lines of writing were horizonally perfect, by placing a straight edge below her pen.

I noticed such things, maybe just a bit more than most of my peers at the time, which may be why when I got to ninth grade and was made to do a science fair project I actually proposed and carried out a study of my classmates' handwriting. I have no idea why the teacher didn't talk me into something more scientific. The final judging of that project was definitely one of my most embarrassing academic moments, yet all these years later I realize that I had at tht time a developing handwriting fetish. I not only loved to write--the feel of the pen in my hand, its movement across paper, the transference of my thoughts to a physical object--but I loved also to look at and to read other people's handwriting. I suppose my teacher knew this as I turned into him beautifully penned, incorrect answers to algebra problems. Today, I appreciate his affirmation of what he must have recognized as my true talent, and I couldn't help but think of this once-discomforting situation as I considered how it is that I have come to my present work of transcribing and digitizing Civl War era records. Though I have had about ten years of practice, I have little difficulty reading nineteenth-century handwriting.

Where are today's scriblo-maniacs? My daughter and I pondered this question as we sat recently at a railroad crossing admiring graffiti on a very slowly passing train. This child, one of our three, does love to write. She has not failed to decorate all of her notebooks and folders with her own name, those of her friends, with a beautiful script and flourishes. I have little doubt that her interest began with wanting to decode my writing, and it's a good thing since i have no less than twenty-five journals, which she will undoubtedly one day peel open to get a deeper sense of me.

Perhaps one in three is about the ratio, or perhaps that is too high, of today's students who will be tomorrow's interpreters of yesterday's script. My concern that there will be no such persons may be unfounded, for I can say this. As my students choose to glance away from my handwriting, flinching as they do, their phones rest comfortably sometimes upon their thighs, sometimes atop their desks, and their fingers moving text up and down small screens mimics my own movements in relative terms. 

 

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