Whether we're slaving over a scholarly article or a textbook, or knocking off streams of memos and e-mails, virtually all of us write constantly -- and we can do it better and more meaningfully, Mike Rose argues.
A recent news item cut me to the nib. Many public schools no longer teach cursive writing; 46 states no longer mandate that districts must teach cursive in their language arts core curriculum. This comes from the mistaken logic that our keyboard-happy society has made cursive a relic of the past that students no longer need. Numerous public schools now teach only printing, and some don’t even bother with lower and upper case – just block letters. Roman Catholic schools still demand cursive, and good for them. For the foreseeable future, kids who don’t have cursive will be at a competitive disadvantage. I’m surprised parents aren’t on the pitchfork-and-torch brigade over this, but I’d like to suggest that college professors should be (especially if they have kids).
I’m no pen-wielding Luddite waxing rhapsodic about creativity flowing down the barrel of a pen, making allusions to a shared Western heritage, or discoursing on calligraphy as art. Like millions of Americans I hit the keyboard most of the time. Nor do I harbor fond memories of learning cursive. My grade school taught the Peterson Method, a system loaded with unnecessary curlicues, severe angles and precise slants. It required mind-numbing oval drills that began with a roomful of kids rotating their arms from the elbow down as the teacher chanted, "Round, round, ready, touch." We repeatedly penciled the same oval – points deducted for lines that strayed. I hated Peterson Method and couldn’t wait to dump its silly W -– a looped double-V – with a more efficient double U construction. I was so bad at penmanship that even my sainted Pennsylvania grandmother called my handwriting "chicken scratchin'." These days I have a hand disorder that makes my scrawl closer to hieroglyphics. But I can read it within 90 percent accuracy and I can pen it very fast.
My defense of cursive is pragmatic, not aesthetic (though I covet elegant script). The first is discipline-specific. The humanities are more text-oriented than most math, computer science, and hard and experimental sciences. We humanities professors tend to demand more prose writing, our content is frequently more subjective, and an ability to take notes is essential. One unexpected consequence of cursive’s decline shows up among recent graduate students working in archives. Those unable to write cursively, often experience difficulty reading the script of others. That was difficult enough in past times, but what we are seeing now is quasi-illiteracy in all things cursive. If a document hasn’t been transcribed, students won’t use it. Need I remind humanities professors how few documents have been transcribed?
A second problem lies with blue-book exams. Count me among those who find blue-book exams an imperfect way of assessing student achievement, but I doubt that they will become obsolete as long as class sizes soar rather than shrink. Large classes present logistical problems. Administrators want professors to be up-to-date, yet they saddle them with classroom structures akin to industrial-age assembly lines. Those with bulging classes of first-year students could assign take-home exams or papers, if they wished also to flunk half of the class for plagiarism. There are other options, but they are limited, which means that today’s college students are likely to take numerous blue-book exams. The results won’t be pretty.
Students swear they can type far faster than they can "write," by which they mean block-letter printing, and that’s correct. Then comes a blue-book exam and with it the instruction, "No, you can’t type this on your laptop." (If you allow that, you’d better have an army of test monitors to stare over shoulders.) Many students cannot fill an eight-page bluebook in an hour, which means that their essays are superficial and are graded accordingly.
"Unfair!" they cry. "Incomplete," we reply. "We cannot assign a grade based on what you might have said." Is it unfair? No more so than a math class in which a professor insists that students do their own arithmetic rather than using a calculator. Or a computer scientist who tells students that the code students write must work at the end of the hour. There are numerous other situations that disallow computers, including the GREs, LSATs, and most licensing exams.
Problem three occurs when technology fails. Students use electronic devices so frequently that they’ve come to assume access. They’re often the same ones who don’t keep batteries charged, think professors come to class armed with extra power cords, and can’t imagine a classroom without empty electrical outlets with their names on them. Heaven help them if their laptops run out of juice in the middle of a class. You know what most of them do? Nothing! The best students try to focus, hoping they will retain enough information to transfer it to their computer once it’s recharged. Try that and tell me how well it works. Almost none open their backpacks and pull out pen and notebook. The weakest students ask me to put my notes on the class website. I know that some of you do that, but I refuse.
Problem four is among the reasons I won’t. "Good listening skills" generally rank high in lists of what employers desire of new hires. There are still jobs where one cannot use technology all the time. Journalism – even for e-zines – is one of them. I have done freelance music journalism for decades. When I can, I use a recorder and a laptop. But I have conducted interviews in backstage green rooms as noisy as a chorus of jackhammers, in the back of buses, on the street, at the side of stages, and in various other situations where the only thing that makes sense is pad and pen.
Journalism isn’t alone. One business leader tests perspective candidates by devising mock scenarios. Candidates must jot down information – no machines allowed – as the interviewer rattles off details, and the candidate must come up with a plan to address the problem. The point isn’t revelatory problem-solving; it’s a test of listening and short-term memory. Why? Because sometimes you simply need to take notes on the fly – a supervisor barks out an assignment, one is trapped in a no-gadgets environment, verbal directions are given to someone who is lost, or you need to focus on a client, not a screen. (Realtors, doctors, caseworkers, therapists….)
Problem five is one of keeping up. An accomplished typist cranks out 60-80 words per minute (WPM). I can write faster than that even with my bad hand. To hit 60 WPM, you need to know how to touch-type, another skill that most students never acquire. I often observe students struggling to keep up. Sometimes I can slow down, but there’s not much to be done during discussions or AV presentations. Just as violin players can play faster than a cellists because they don’t have as much instrument to cover, so too can a cursive writer scribble on paper faster than typists can traverse a 12-18 inch keyboard (especially if one is a hunt-and-peck typist.)
There are limitations even in nontraditional classrooms. The latest rage is the "flipped" classroom, in which students refine what would normally be called “homework” in class. One historian assigns questions to answer in writing outside of class and devotes class time asking students divulge, discuss, and expound upon their answers. They hand in their prewriting and keep a second for themselves. On the second they take notes based on class responses, as this is all they can use to complete papers and exams. The pace is rapid – answer, redirection, and discussion until depth is achieved. When I asked if all students keep up, I was told, "No. And that’s not my problem. It’s not a remedial course."
Finally, computers can be deadly to discussion and deep comprehension. A mind focused on a screen is less actively engaged with live speakers, be they professors or student peers. (And that’s before other temptations from the World of Wireless intrude. Try reading a single e-mail and see how long it takes to refocus on an active discussion.) Many students are great at retrieving information, but extremely slow in analyzing it, partly because they fail to grasp the connective tissue that relates one bit of information to another. The more distracted they get, the less likely they are to find that tissue. Some educational psych studies claim the physical act of writing produces better comprehension than typing. That’s not my field, but it rings true.
Again, I’m not a technophobe. But I do think those declaring the death of cursive are wrong -- at least for the immediate future. Today’s world depends increasingly upon flexibility, suppleness, and adaptability. I simply see no benefit in retiring cursive, and the potential for harm looms large. It’s no fun to teach or practice. Meh! I didn’t like learning multiplication tables, conjugating verbs, or discovering how to decode the periodic table of elements, but they were good medicine.
College professors should deliver the message that the decline of cursive reduces student chances for success. Our new Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, might be able to get away with scrawling gibberish across a page, but ask yourself: Would you hire some kid who can’t sign his or her own name?
Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of Inside Higher Ed's "Instant Mentor" career advice column.
Since the beginning of time
Everyone knows in society today
Student writing hasn’t gotten any better
Nor is it really any worse than usual.
The sentences are still afraid of commas
And plurals and possessives share a closet.
I don’t expect much improvement
Without better nutrition and stronger threats.
Plus, there are far too many sentences
That begin with This or There followed
By big empty boxes of Is and Are.
(Perhaps this student should take a year off
And read books with real people in them.)
And I’m only talking about sentences
Not the paragraphs that struggle along
Between the left and right margins
But miraculously start and finish
At the top and bottom of each page.
Also, I was really hoping for an original title
And just once my name spelled right.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.
What comes to many of our students’ mind when they hear the word "rhetoric"? Specious arguments that are all glamor and little substance? Or perhaps stodgy old professors lecturing on and on about Cicero this and Quintilian that?
As a teacher of writing, and as a proponent of active learning, I have always disdained the traditional lecture. Yet, each term, for each course that I teach — from freshman "basic writing" courses, to graduate courses in teaching (and learning) college writing — I have always included a somewhat traditional introductory lecture on rhetoric. Sure, I give it all I’ve got in order to not only provide students the information I want them to use in their analytical work (content), but also to enact a living model of delivery (form) — what the greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes, declared the most important part of any speech. But this term I decided to shake things up a bit. I wondered what would happen if I turned over the reins of my prized rhetoric-lecture thoroughbred over to the hands and minds of the students to ride (deliver).
Like Mike Garver, I wanted to explode the way the lecture typically works rather than, like some of our colleagues in math, attempt to do away with lectures altogether. But I also wanted the students to have a much more active role in the actual generation and delivery of the lecture — a form of instruction I do believe can have merit. Would this experiment result in witnessing my tame lecture turn into a wild stampede? Or would (as I hoped) the students buck up, plant their feet firmly in her stirrups and, like Alexander with Bucephalus, make this beast their own?
The Game Plan
I began my plans by dividing the lecture into parts, depending on how many students were in each of my three classes: for my basic writing course of 10, I had them work in pairs; for my intermediate composition course of 21, teams of three; and for my graduate course of 14, also pairs. Each group was responsible for delivering their section of the lecture in about 10-15 minutes. I told them they had the choice of how they wanted to deliver it. As they buzzed, frenetically strategizing and planning together in class, I fielded their many questions, but tried not to give too much direction. I explained that I wanted them to work on this "problem-situation" with their partners as much as possible. I encouraged them to try not to make too much out of this, that this was a low-stakes assignment designed mostly to prepare them for later work.
The day of the presentation I began by explaining to students that the ancient Roman classroom (especially training in the carefully scaffolded progymnasmataas detailed by Quintilian) was a very interactive place where peer critique was the name of the game. So I let them know that the audience was going to actually be the most important part of the presentations. As an audience we would be critiquing the presenters. We decided that since I had provided most of the content, the assessment criteria would all hinge upon elements of delivery. We agreed upon three broad and interpretive categories: creativity, clarity, and energy. Each category would be scored on a scale of 0-to-5, 5 being the highest, for a possible total of 15 points overall.
I must say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by what followed. The first class to go was my intermediate-level class in groups of three. The first group made a valiant effort to get our momentum off to a good start. They were strong in creativity but fumbled many of their lines, and overall stuck pretty close to the lecture script I had provided. Two of the presenters also delivered in somewhat monotone voices with relatively low energy. The second group, however, came ready to deliver. Michelle DelGuidice and Adam Aluise, as well as Alyssa Barnhart (all students' names used with permission) who was not in class this day but did contribute her ideas, creatively took Kenneth Burke’s concept of the five dramatistic terms — act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose — and applied them to a real-life event. The act: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly, as Michelle would dark-comically interject) kills two people." The scene: "O.J. and Nicole Simpson’s home." The agent: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly)." The agency: "He stabs them both to death." The purpose: "Jealousy." Each term came complete with an actual picture from the trial. All other groups fell somewhere on a continuum of these two types of presentations. Some really filtered the assignment and lecture notes through what Burke called their interpretive "termistic screens." Others stuck pretty close to the script, perhaps adding some sort of visual element via the projector or the dry-erase board.
The basic writing students also surprised me. The first group, made up of Jahnea Farquharson and Ashley Tremblay, delivered what I often call a "you had me at hello" presentation ("Jerry Maguire"). They had a PowerPoint wherein they delivered their section with significant visual addendums, they projected their voices loud and clear, and they spoke with passion and emphases. This first group even added some additional information involving Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical arguments: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Of course, the rest of the class knew that this first group had set the bar extremely high. I played the role of good facilitator and assured them that they would all do just fine and to have confidence. Like the intermediate-level students, the rest of the groups fell along the same sort of oratory-continuum, from low-talkers, to folks who pretty much just read off the paper, to students fumbling with audio-visual buttons and screens.
I had high hopes for my graduate students. And, just like my undergraduates, they didn’t disappoint. The entire class and I sat enrapt and entertained as group after group delivered presentations abounding with thoughtfulness and overflowing with great energy and humor (and this is an evening class, from 7:35 to 10:05 pm). One of the key differences in the performances of the graduate students was how much they drew on the power of acting.
Several groups created characters as the conduits for their delivery. For example, the first group introduced us to the characters of Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos (played by Charles Hamlin) was very matter-of-fact in his speech as he talked of some ways he deploys himself in the service of argumentation. Pathos (played by Jake Goldman) was an energetic and emotional speaker who talked of the significance of the sentimental value of a dinner plate heirloom from his grandmother that he brought in to show and tell us about. Ethos (also played by Jake Goldman) presented an authoritative figure who was actually an expert in the arts of persuasion. He had written many books on the subject and had an impressive way of linking his argumentation to his previous partners’ talks comparatively. After watching my graduate students perform so excellently, I was left to ponder the ancient rhetorical admonishment from the most renowned of Roman orators, Cicero: "The habits of actors must be studied if we wish to perfect our delivery."
For each class, I let them know that each group, at least from me, had received a full score of five on creativity. I let them all know that they all did a good job of making the lecture their own. I told them that if they think they are not "creative" then they had better guess again. (I have had many students say that they are "not creative.") I explained that I believe all humans, and most animals, are creative. I said I have three dogs and I have watched them all solve problems and try to figure things out … creatively. I praised them all heavily, telling all students that they did a much better job overall than I had ever done. And that everyone had some strengths and weaknesses — some groups that may not have been as “energetic” were good with "clarity" for example. By the time I had experienced all three classes, I could report back the results to all my students comparatively.
Sure, maybe I could have been more critical of the students’ performances. Yes, perhaps more critical scrutiny would have been more edifying for the low-talkers, or the underprepared, or the obviously nervous. But what is most important for young, or older, active minds to hear? Since, as a class, we assessed and critiqued each group, everyone knew how they had performed in the eyes of their peers; from our interaction, they knew/learned what they might have done better, more, less. I don’t think they needed me spurring them on any more than that.
Most of my in-class lesson plans do involve collaborative interactivity. And, along with other essays I have written for Inside Higher Ed, this essay has attempted to respond to an argument I recently made regarding teachers of writing holding themselves up to the same rigorous performance expectations and standards (habits of mind) as their students. So when I foresee the chance, I will try to make all of my activities in class reach for the stars like this one. I will consider my students as colleagues more carefully, and I will try to imagine what might happen if I let them ride a wild-horse activity out of the gates from time to time. Maybe they will do their part to put the word “rhetoric” back in the proper intellectual tradition (albeit with an energetic modern twist) that it deserves. (For a lively introduction to the study of rhetoric, created by Clemson grad students, see the YouTube video "In Defense of Rhetoric: Not Just for Liars.")
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.
Decades ago, two colleges in Virginia decided all students would need to pass essay exam to graduate. Old Dominion just dropped the unusual requirement, while Hampden-Sydney has no intention of doing so.