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March 5, 2010 - 8:30am



Automated Touchless Dispenser it says on the paper towel machine in the bathroom near my university office, and I sometimes think, as the mere nearness of me excites the machine's red light and white sheet, that its noli mi tangere message carries over pretty well to what's happening between professors and students these days. Teaching's becoming a germ-free, high-tech, extrusion of data. You can see students trying to acclimate to the chill.

For instance, a Georgetown University student writes:

My loudest complaint is the impersonality of the online model. There’s something reassuring and intimate about a hand-corrected paper. To print a paper is to finalize it, making change all but impossible. Printing a paper brings the writer’s ideas and craft into the physical world. In a realm as tenuous and self-conscious as academia, tangibility provides a reassuring degree of legitimacy. A professor’s handwritten corrections are a sign that, even if the grade is poor, the student’s effort received individualized attention. Inserting feedback via track changes, or any online form, is chillingly anonymous and curt.

… [R]eplacing short essays turned in for feedback with essays copied-and-pasted into a three-inch Blackboard window actually weakens students’ grip on the fundamentals of structured writing. And if I wanted significant portions of my interaction with professors and classmates to take place online, I could have pursued admittance to the University of Phoenix.

This is a small thing, maybe, and after all only one of many of examples of the mechanization and depersonalization of university life. PowerPoint, laptops,and clickers in use in semi-empty classrooms (many students download the lecture in their dorm room rather than attend class) are much more significant elements of the automated academy. And yet there's a pathos to this particular complaint, this complaint about the disappearance of the professor's handwriting on the student's physical paper.

To begin to get at the student's complaint, you have to keep in mind that it indeed takes place in the context of a more and more technified education. This student is responding not merely to a particular instance of impersonality and anonymity; the end of professors' penmanship on physical papers represents one pedagogical obsolescence among many, one more lost opportunity for intimacy, individuality, and reassurance (the student uses the word reassuring twice).

This isn't some random drive-by annoyance, in other words; it's part of a world.


Now let's look more intimately at intimacy. There's something "intimate about a hand-corrected paper."

Good students are curious about professors; students watch professors in front of the class as they lecture and as they sort of disclose things about themselves (I don't have in mind professors who are PowerPoint devotees. These rarely look up, let alone disclose anything about themselves). Good students learn from the personality of their professors, not just from their professors' content. These students are intuiting and indeed perhaps internalizing the values of a reflective, intellectually serious life from their in-class intuitions about various professors' backgrounds and characters and motivations. The students are coming to understand, in other words, the complex interaction between character and idea, an interaction the professor actively models through lecture and discussion.

Handwriting conveys, to the curious student, yet more of the professor's intriguing and perhaps inspiring personality. It's one more clue they hunger after, the signature mark of an intellectual. And of course it's reassuring because it confirms the authenticity and immediacy of the professor's presence in their lives; only the professor wrote these words in the margin and at the end of the paper. This professor and no other person and no other software did the student the honor of reading, thinking about, and writing directly to the student, in the professor's own ink, in the professor's personal scrawl, on the student's own paper.


"To print a paper is to finalize it." That three-inch Blackboard window represents analysis interminable. You do your futzing, I do mine, you do more of your futzing, I do more of mine, lalalalalalala.... It's a Kabuki dance, a chatterbox chachacha, a movable type minuet... That's why the student rightly says that text shifting "weakens students’ grip on the fundamentals of structured writing." Ain't no grip when ain't nothing to hold onto.

The physical paper with the professor's hand upon it is a presence. It is a shared human object in the real world which expresses the student's "ideas and craft" and the professor's reactions to those ideas and that craft. You both hold it. You both reckon with it. It is an emblem of mutual and embodied humanity.

Why do we wait in line at book signings? Couldn't the author print out a facsimile of the book's first page with her computer-generated signature and give that to you? Wouldn't that satisfy you?


And as to curt ("Inserting feedback via track changes, or any online form, is chillingly anonymous and curt."). It takes much less time to do track changes. Longhand writing is slow. But the fact of that extra effort, that personal investment of time, is what the student very much wants.

Indeed, even the scrawled over and rewritten messiness of inked comments is much-desired; it conveys to the student your real-time grappling with her words as you revise a thought here, correct a phrase there. It is a trace, a palimpsest if you like, of yourself, your being, your having been there with that student, with that paper.

In giving the paper this considered form of seriousness, this textured, real-time effort, you do honor to the student. In transferring prefab phrases to a screen, you automatically, touchlessly, dispense a series of formal corrections.


Given the recession of the professoriate from our students, can we be surprised that they in turn have withdrawn from us? Here's something from another university student. It appears in the blog Deadspin.

As a ... college sophomore who is currently typing this
e-mail in my Latin American Culture and Politics class, which takes
place from 4:15-7 every Monday afternoon, I've noticed that a laptop on
the desk is a clear indication of a student who is doing absolutely jack
squat in class. As I type this, three other students are, like me,
sitting in the back row on their laptops. As a matter of fact, as I
glanced over, a fellow laptop user gave me a nod as if we were passing
truckers on a freeway...

Passing truckers on a freeway. Over there! Hi! Fellow member of the Society of I'm not really here, and there's not really a professor in the front of the room...

As they've given up trying to connect to a professor who has given up trying to connect to them, students have begun to form their own classroom cultures, entirely autonomous of their instructors. As they nod to one another across the lecture hall, these students acknowledge their shared loyalty to lapland, home of the intellectually disconnected.


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