In late spring, I had to endorse a number of legal documents using a digital rendering of my name in a cursive script, chosen from a a menu of simulated handwriting styles. It was like my signature, except legible. Beneath its surface, so to speak, was my identifying data -- confirmed by what the company producing the application calls “robust authentication methods.”
Indeed, if it were necessary to prove the authenticity of the “signature” in court, there is no question that the digital glyph could be verified rigorously, whereas a handwriting expert would be hard-pressed to find much uniformity between versions of the scrawl that I make on paper. The visible part of an electronic signature, with its imitation of penmanship, is just a formality. It accommodates our lingering sense that entering a binding legal obligation really ought to include the act of affirming one’s identity by one’s own hand. (With the whole hand, that is, not just the finger used to click “I accept.”) At this stage, the feeling is vestigial. Given another generation or two of kids who grow up knowing how to type before they can ride a bicycle, it could disappear entirely, and the practice of writing by hand could become an antiquarian hobby, like churning your own butter or making horseshoes.
But not necessarily. Anne Trubek covers a great deal of interesting ground in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury), though much of the comment it has received concerns the "uncertain future" part, in an elegaic mode. I found rather that many of the book's points are made most clearly at the start, when she discusses the earliest known system of writing, Sumerian cuneiform, which emerged around 3000 B.C.E. (Formerly an associate professor of rhetoric, composition and English at Oberlin College, Trubek is the founder of Belt magazine, devoted to urban life in the Rust Belt.)
Encouraged by a curator to pick up some cuneiform tablets for a closer look, Trubek is struck by how compact they are: roughly palm-sized, covered with tiny marks made on wet clay with a stylus. While the writing instruments were simple, mastering them was not: “The tip of the stylus was triangular, and turning it caused different slants and directions for the marks -- some went deeper than others , some went horizontally or vertically, and the bottom of the stylus would make a round mark -- each with a distinct meaning.” To develop competence required years of study at the edubba (the Sumerian word for school: literally, “tablet house”) and also, one assumes, regular offerings to Nabu, the god of scribes, wisdom and literature.
“By 1600 B.C.E.,” writes Trubek, “no Sumerian speakers were alive,” but it continued to be taught as a classical language, while cuneiform remained in use for another thousand years. For all its difficulty, cuneiform was easier to learn than the Egyptian writing system; it was relatively utilitarian (often used for business contracts and tax records), while hieroglyphics “were as much an art form as they were a means of information storage.” And clay tablets “continued to be used even after most people had shifted to papyrus.”
It is a lesson in the durable habits of the late adopter -- and a reminder that “the uncertain future of handwriting” (or of any other aspect of literacy) will not be decided by the automatic workings of progress and obsolescence.
As she roams across the centuries, Trubek points out two or three factors that have largely set the terms for the development of handwriting, quite apart from the qualities of the tools we use. One, of course, is that only a small a fraction of the population has been able to acquire the skill throughout most of history. In addition, people who could read did not always learn to write, as the skill was difficult and slow to master. Finally, people in authority have long tried to impose norms on how words should appear on the page. Charlemagne in the ninth century might not have otherwise have much resembled American schoolteachers in the 20th century, but they shared a passion for standardized penmanship.
It’s easy to see how these three difficult realities -- widespread illiteracy, tortuous pedagogy, and the demand for uniformity -- would tend to reinforce one another. Trubek’s story is in part one of rapid changes followed by stubborn inertia. One side-effect of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was that, in putting scribes out of work, many were compelled to take up a new career: they became writing instructors. That can only have encouraged more efficient pedagogy -- and with it a broadening and deepening of the pool of those people able to write, as well as read, more books.
But the drive to standardize and to reinforce social hierarchy seems, if anything, to have intensified: handwriting became an index of status, rank and moral uprightness. A 17th-century writing manual recommended a particular script for women, “for as much as they (having not the patience to take any great paines, besides phantasticiall and humorsome) must be taught that which they may instantly learn.” Immigrants who practiced the Palmer Method -- one of the predominant forms of handwriting instruction available a hundred years ago -- would be more readily assimilated under its “powerful hygienic effect.” Good penmanship — for a purer America!
The invention of the typewriter was one giant leap for standardization, and Trubek quotes one researcher’s conclusion that “familiarity with the typewriter makes students better penmen, not worse.” But it also provoked worries that teachers were neglecting handwriting instruction. In time, “the universal typewriter may swallow all.”
It didn’t, of course. What actually happened (and this is one of the most striking points in a book full of them) was that another attitude towards handwriting came into focus: a sense of it being like one’s fingerprints, with distinct qualities visible only to the trained eye. Graphologists make the still larger claim that handwriting analysis can reveal aspects of the personality. Because graphology ranks somewhere between dowsing and astrology in scientific rigor, I had assumed its origins were lost in the mists of antiquity. But it turns out the idea took shape no later than the 17th century, with efforts to systematize it really getting underway only in the 19th century, amidst worries about individuality being crushed by the march of progress.
Trubek’s history of handwriting is a story of metamorphosis, not of decline. Given my experience with “signing” digital documents a few months ago, I was interested and amused to learn it was a variation on a theme: A century or so back, one manufacturer “marketed -- unsuccessfully, it seems -- a typewriter whose letter keys were formed from handwriting of the buyer.” If the future of handwriting is uncertain, that’s in part because no one can tell what uses and meanings we may find for it yet.
After months of deliberation, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities can form unions, overturning a 2004 decision. Graduate employee unions and graduate students have hailed the ruling -- a response to a petition by graduate employees at Columbia University seeking to form a union -- as a victory for graduate student rights. The decision to allow graduate employees at private universities to unionize has potential to alter the lives of thousands of graduate employees around the United States.
Graduate employees at Columbia will still need to hold an official vote to form a union, but this is a step in the right direction. Of course, administrations of both public and private universities remain critical of the effect that unions will have on institutions of higher learning. However, those criticisms largely reflect the questionable views that there is a special “student-teacher relationship” and that scholarship is more important than compensation.
For the past four years, I have attended the University of Illinois in Urbana as a graduate student. To date, the majority of graduate employee unions have been formed at public universities because, in contrast to private universities, public universities are governed by state labor boards and state labor laws. The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois represents nearly 3,000 graduate employees working as teaching and graduate assistants across campus.
What I’ve learned in my time at the university is that a graduate union is not the end of the struggle for grad rights. The experiences of graduate employees at the University of Illinois and other protected institutions demonstrate the overwhelming pressures on those employees to sacrifice their health and well-being to a centuries-old model of education.
In their amicus brief for the NLRB case, The American Council on Education (ACE) criticizes graduate students for wanting to be recognized as employees; they state, “[The] Petitioner’s unabashed purpose is to extend its reach by intruding collective bargaining as broadly as possible into academic matters at the expense of the student-teacher relationship (emphasis added).” ACE assumes that the student-teacher relationship is always beneficial to graduate student education, but the reality is that it can be exploitative. The system as it operates now means poverty and hardship for many graduate employees. Graduate students are increasingly in debt, depressed, and overworked.
In addition, by focusing on the student-teacher relationship, ACE obscures the panoply of relationships that affect graduate employee well-being on university campuses, such as corporate partners, budgetary officers and the board of trustees.
When I served as the grievance officer for the GEO during the 2015-2016 school year, I often saw overworked graduate employees. Even with the protection of a union, graduate employees frequently came to me as someone who would listen to them, but they did not want to report problems to their departments. The student-teacher relationship is one kind of relationship that exists within a complicated web of departmental and university politics. Academic disciplines are microcosms; graduate students often fear being informally black-listed if they speak up about any issues they have with the system, even when their complaints are about violations of the contract, such as overwork and religious discrimination.
ACE is arguing for an outdated image of the university that perpetuates a system in which graduate employees should be grateful for working at all, even if they are overworked, underpaid and lack benefits. In its response to the ruling, Columbia similarly emphasized the primacy of the student-teacher relations. The administration stated that it did not support the involvement of a “nonacademic third party in this scholarly training,” However, the reality is that concerns of other parties often impact university decisions; universities are businesses enterprises, not scholarly silos. Despite the assertion that the student-teacher relationship is at the heart from graduate employee labor, a variety of other parties directly and indirectly affect the availability of appointments, compensation and other benefits. At the University of Illinois, departments are given funding by the college and then determine how to spend that funding; however, other universities may use a more top-down managerial style. In either situation, those people allocating budgets play a crucial role in determining what departments can offer graduate employees.
Although opposition to graduate employee unions is couched in language about the “student-teacher relationship” or scholarly pursuits, university administrators have shown that the conflict is often over money. For institutions across the United States, budgets are tight. For example, the University of Illinois claims to be in a budget crisis, but with a $3.3 billion dollar endowment, there is room for changes to budget priorities. In the past, when the university has been in a financial “crisis,” often of its own making, it has attempted to balance the budget on the backs of graduate employees, despite the fact that graduate employee compensation makes up a miniscule percent of the university’s budget. Similarly, the University of Missouri revoked health insurance coverage for graduate employees because of budget concerns in August 2015. That sparked outrage and ultimately resulted in a vote by graduate employees there to form a union.
Faced with mounting budgetary pressures, some universities have looked to requiring graduate employees pay tuition. At the University of Illinois, graduate employees covered by the GEO receive tuition waivers; that means that their tuition will be waived up to a certain amount, although graduate employees will still have to pay some fees. That right was hard-won after a strike in 2009. However, in 2010, despite their agreement with the GEO, the university attempted to revoke tuition waivers for some graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts through a change in policy. The GEO challenged that policy change through a grievance and won arbitration in 2011. The university had to repay students in Fine and Applied Arts for tuition paid under that policy.
In January 2016, GEO won another victory in arbitration. In that case, some programs were asking departments that hired their graduate students to pay those employees’ tuition rather than those employees earning a tuition waiver. The arbitrator ruled that asking departments to pay a graduate employee’s tuition effectively kept many qualified graduate students from getting employment. Students affected by these policy changes were struggling to pay bills and to concentrate on teaching and research due to stress. Even in that situation, students were hesitant to come forward, fearing isolation or pushback from their departments.
Graduate employees are in the precarious position of being both students and employees. We face the challenge of navigating departmental and campus politics, while trying to teach, research and publish. The student-teacher relationship allows for exploitation on the basis of future employment, meaning graduate employees must sacrifice their health and well-being for the chance of a good future, an increasingly slim chance.
It is in the interest of everyone in the university system to treat graduate employees as employees. High quality recruits will be more likely to apply a place with more protections. The job security offered by a union contract will also raise the quality of graduate and undergraduate education and research. In addition, unions can foster interdisciplinarity among graduate employees, creating networks that can foster research projects, educational innovation and emotional support. Graduate employees work hard to keep university campuses running; we deserve respect for the work that we do.
Mary Grace B. Hébert is a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
I teach at an elite Ivy League university, where, for several years now, debates over free speech, racial justice and diversification have been explosive. Last year was, in a word, rough. Following several high profile police shootings, there were protests and hunger strikes and sit-ins nationally, and our own campus was turned upside down by two incendiary opinion pieces in the student newspaper and a disturbing, physical encounter between a visiting student and the campus police. As an institution, we struggled, worked hard, changed some things right away, and made some big claims and promises about our future.
In just a few days, our students will return to the classrooms. They will expect an engaged faculty and will want new classes addressing contemporary social and political issues. Together, we will be looking to solve problems. At times, too, they will be hoping for some kind genuflection to their humanity, their youth and the dark, merciless world in which we live. In short, they will be looking for exactly the sort of “safe space” that other faculty members at other universities -- like the dean of students at the University of Chicago -- have closed off as merely self-serving “retreats” for the weak-kneed.
I hope that at the end of the day, Chicago’s cold, Darwinian approach will be an outlier nationally -- and that students almost everywhere will be received this academic year more graciously, more thoughtfully and more constructively than those who imagine such things. Because, in the end, we will all need each other to do the work that must be done. And that work is not some sort of Thunderdome, in which two ideas do battle until one survives. This is a crucial moment for higher education, and the brisk response from Chicago reveals the stakes clearly. We -- faculty members, students, administrators and our publics -- are actually on the verge of making significantly more comprehensive adjustments to the mission of higher education than were made previously. We should embrace those more dynamic, more revolutionary changes and drive them home.
One of the big, challenging reforms is the notion of a “safe space” for our students, a concept that is both old and new and nearly impossible to define. It can mean a single room on a campus, the floor of a building or an entire center or department. It can refer to the presence of trained counselors, the support of friends and allies, or the absence of hurtful material. Our students deserve such spaces on a campus because the absence of such spaces is counter to the very mission of higher education.
In surveying the groundwork, however, not everyone thinks higher education is on the right track, especially when attention turns to race. The dean at the University of Chicago is not alone. Critics dismiss protesting students as spoiled, “self-infantilizing,” pampered brats, and they imagine that, by responding to their complaints and taking them seriously, universities are abrogating their mission to foster an unregulated exchange of ideas. A vocal handful of faculty members worry that their free speech -- or, on a lower frequency, their academic freedom -- is under siege. Videos of student’s screaming at white faculty members and administrators circulate on right-wing blogs and websites as proof. Some donors, as TheNew York Times reports, complain that universities are now spending too much money on diversity, leading to a noticeable downward turn in giving this past year.
In this context, “safe space” is too easily parodied – as the Onion did, with its headline from July of 2015, “Parents Dedicate Safe Space on Campus in Honor of Daughter Who Felt Weird in Class Once.” Too easily parodied -- and too easily undone, as well, as the recent decision by Michigan State University to open a “women’s only” space to men reveals. The solution to our student’s weakness, so many critics all too often suggest, is bold, direct, repeated engagement with ideas that civil society has already deemed noxious, hateful and politically dangerous.
Setting aside the parodies and the critiques, there is a sound reason to support a broader, more comprehensive notion of safety, something that might be pushed to the very boundaries of our campuses: the world is sometimes breathtakingly, violently, terrifyingly precarious for precisely the sorts of students whom we are now actively recruiting.
Colleges and universities are, pop culture tells us repeatedly, supposed to be walled off. No wonder, then, that students see higher education institutions as both a staging ground for their protests and as a possible idyll. No wonder, too, that they keenly sense the distance between what was promised in glossy brochures -- a removed experience, a free space for serious conversation -- and what was delivered in the strange environs of a new town or city far from home -- more of the same social and political pressures, more of the same violence, whether discursive or physical. Indeed, what they read in the words of those who champion “free speech” -- which almost always seems to mean the freedom to speak of things consistently defined as backward or troubling -- is that many would like a very different “safe space,” in which one can say racist or sexist things without consequence.
The insistent request for administrators and faculty members to “do something”-- to rename a building, to remove a mural, to replace a mascot, to disarm the campus police, to disinvite a speaker -- is a plea to create the conditions where this promised distance was once again possible, to clear cut a firebreak between the dystopian “real world” and the contemplative, even monkish world of study. But it is also to acknowledge a real world in which these icons have led violent charges, to recognize a physical world in which there are disenfranchised people of color for whom these things are reminders of real pain. To paraphrase one university president, students need safe spaces in order to acquire the dangerous knowledge they need.
The safety we want -- that campus-wide, reflective, self-aware distance from the grit of the everyday -- is going to be hard to manufacture. As anyone with a smartphone knows, new digital technologies and a proliferation of social media outlets have allowed the enduring, everyday violence of racism to be broadcast, to be felt by so many all at once, in ways that are powerful. Those same technologies have also fostered new social connections, creating the movements and communities that mount these critiques. Social media lets us see absence, too.
The development, in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, of antiseptic, color-blind institutional racism means, as well, that while we see racism online -- and in person -- we see far less justice than we once did. Vigilante shooters go unpunished. Mass incarceration is further entrenched. Military technologies, distributed to the police, get ever more sophisticated and punitive. In mounting their protests, students are driven by a sober-minded concern about the conditions of everyday life because they have been living in the midst of everything, touched personally or emotionally by violence or poverty or loss or disenfranchisement. These days, it seems, one simply cannot escape the blaring headlines and vivid color photos that program algorithms put in your feed.
Maybe the extraordinary penetration of digital media into our campuses requires us to work harder at being more mindful in other ways, in other forms of engagement. Maybe it puts more of a burden on us to be kind, to be gentle, to be supportive. Maybe it should force us to understand, more broadly, the lived experiences of our students before they arrive. Maybe, finally, it should mean that when we, as members of a community, invoke our right to “free speech,” we don’t do so in defense of obnoxious, cruel and broken-down ideas. At the very least, we should proactively work to create such spaces before things go awry.
“Safe space” seems like a pretty rarified concept, of course. And, to some, it reads as an expression of privilege. I admit that absolute safety is an impossible construct, because learning requires risk. But not all risks are equal, and there is a difference between a campus shuttle to get around a city and a campus commitment to the broadest possible notion of safety. My colleagues and friends teaching in Texas are strategizing, right this second, about how to teach with a gun in the classroom or how to discuss a “grade” with a student who might be packing. Mothers and fathers sending their daughters off to college are rightly concerned about rape and sexual violence. Parents of color are worried that their children might get profiled, arrested, roughed up or much, much worse. I am concerned, as a faculty member, as a parent, and as a human being about teaching a class on race and racism knowing that every single student in the room has seen Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and too many others die in vivid Technicolor. Concerned, too, that at any moment a news alert might pop up on our phones about the next disaster.
Faculty members and administrators thus have a calling to act. Without delay. To remove that racist mural and relocate it to a museum. To rename that building and historicize the old name. (If you have to raise the money to do it, there are examples where that has worked). To practice discernment in scheduling talks or speakers, so that we don’t bring that bigot, thug or provocateur to the campus just to win a news cycle or to get your think tank in the paper. To prioritize ideas and visitors who are actively, constructively engaged in solving (and not making) social problems. To recommit to the historic, ancient role of the university as a site of knowledge production and to do what must be done to build, in the age of social media, a campus that feels removed and distant, yet also grounded and aware.
It is not our job to make intellectual noise -- a raucous debate, a clashing set of ideas, a hurtful back-and-forth -- just because we can. It is our job, as stewards of the very idea of the university, to think hard, at some distance, about big problems and to provide material solutions. After all, every unread essay or delayed book has consequences, every missing word defers a social change, and every abbreviated paper or poorly-written research project stalls those solutions. The crucial thing is to get ahead of the curve: to read the campus as it presently exists, to think in explicitly utopian terms about what it might look like, and to move towards this new ideal well in advance of some dramatic event or hurtful misdeed.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is chair of American studies and professor of Africana studies, American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University.
Joining professors elsewhere, tenured Notre Dame de Namur faculty members protest cuts that followed academic program prioritization. But their new status as union members may complicate their situation.