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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Typing Unlocked the World for Me

What is an underlying core skill that today's students must have? Is it still typing?

July 22, 2019
 
 

Don’t tell my mother, because I’ll never hear the end of her gloating, but the most important class I think I ever took was typing.

We’re talking “summer school” between fifth and sixth grade, 1981, the kind of course a kid gets signed up for when he has two working parents and sports camp hasn’t yet started. 

We learned on old Royal manuals – good for the finger strength – quick brown foxing our way through a book of drills meant to train our hands in the ways they must stretch and move in producing different combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols. You had to look at the page rather than your fingers lest you miss the need to wing the carriage return lever across the device. 

Many a phrase was lost as the keys struck the roller surface, having run past the paper.

The carriage return was the most satisfying part of the whole thing, and while the automatic text wrap of word processing is mightily convenient, on occasion, when I’m really humming, I long for those analog days, the chance to put an extra physical flourish at the end of every line. Even at home we already had an IBM Selectric with its amazing ball, so my time for imitating a journalist on deadline in an old-time movie was limited to school. 

I’ve been thinking about typing because of a Twitter conversation populated significantly by teachers of a certain age in which we shared when we took a typing class, and what it meant to us.

For me, it meant a lot. As a kid I had issues some with fine motor coordination that in today’s age would’ve likely been remediated, but back then was simply something I struggled with. When it came to writing cursive, I put an inordinate amount of focus into making the proper letter shapes, rather than thinking about what I was saying. I would get the sentence in my mind, and then transcribe it, and so on and so on. Typing was a gateway to writing at the speed of my thoughts. 

A couple years later our household was blessed with an Apple IIe desktop and you could find me hammering away on the Mavis Beacon software, improving my skills. By the time I hit college, I was a confident touch typist, maybe 85-100 words a minute in transcription, and absolutely as fast as necessary when I was composing. 

After graduate school, my first job in market research included time in the literal typing pool, dressing up documents and reports (my first introduction to PowerPoint), which provided a handy entre into the kind of work a market research firm does. Because I could also write and edit, some took notice of the value I was adding to the documents that passed through my hands and soon enough I was doing more substantive work.

Typing (or keyboarding) is not a necessity for writing, particularly now that we have excellent voice recognition options, a tremendous boon for those who require adaptive technology. My father, a successful litigator, never learned to type, either writing his briefs longhand or even dictating them for a secretary to turn into typescript. When he passed away fifteen years ago, he was trying to learn to type so he could work on a book after his retirement.

For me, typing is absolutely necessary for me to express my ideas and put them into the world with any kind of coherence and fluency. I think, therefore I type, and because I can type, I can think. I have come to rely on writing as a way to process my own knowledge, and typing is a necessary conduit to be able to do that processing. Due to age and some old sports injuries, I have days where my hands and wrists ache as I work, and I find this often hampers the quality of my thinking, not because the pain is so great, but because I’m suddenly noticing the machinery of production that usually operates without any necessary attention.

I am a confident extemporaneous speaker, but the root of that confidence is in having previously written about the things I’m speaking on. If I’m confronted with a future in which I cannot type, I’m confident I will have to rewire some essential part of how I work to keep doing it. The very thought of it frightens me.

When I see a (usually young) person typing at high speed on a smartphone keyboard, I’m envious. My lingering fine motor issues mean my thumbs seem to always strike the wrong spots. The writing is painfully slow. I have had students who say that their preferred tool for drafting is their phone, and I believe them because it is not my job as their instructor to put arbitrary encumbrances on the tools they use for their self-expression.

It’s possible that typing on a QWERTY keyboard as a necessary skill has reached a peak. I am a faster typist than almost all my students on a computer, though many of them are also quite fast. When it comes to typing on a phone, they are much faster. I’d be curious to time their phone typing speed – with the benefit of predictive text – against my laptop speed. 

As typing has possibly reached a peak, the future my require other fundamental skills when it comes to disseminating one’s ideas into the world.

The ability to create and edit video may be seen as foundational as typing was to my generation. This requires both an expanded knowledge of literacies, anda set of skills that I don’t have any may never need.

Not being able to type would’ve been a tremendous drag on my potential. I’m wondering what students of now and the future must be able to do to make sure their futures aren’t hindered.

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