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.
In 1892, the president of Leland Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, managed to convince Ewald Flügel, a scholar at the University of Leipzig, to join the young institution’s rudimentary English department. Flügel had received his doctoral degree in 1885 with a study of Thomas Carlyle under the aegis of Richard Wülcker, one of the founders of English studies in Europe. Three years later, he finished his postdoctoral degree, with a study on Sir Philip Sydney, and was appointed to the position of a Privatdozent at Leipzig.
The position of the Privatdozent is one of the most fascinating features at the modern German universities in the late 19th century. Although endowed with the right to direct dissertations and teach graduate seminars, the position most often offered only the smallest of base salaries, leaving the scholar to earn the rest of his keep by students who paid him directly for enrolling in his seminars and lectures. In a 1903 Stanford commencement speech Flügel warmly recommended that his new colleagues in American higher education embrace the Privatdozent concept:
What would the faculty of Stanford University say to a young scholar of decided ability, who, one or two years after his doctorate (taken with distinction), having given proof of high scholarly work and spirit, should ask the privilege of using a certain lecture room at a certain hour for a certain course of lectures? What would Stanford University say, if – after another year or two this young man, unprotected but regarded with a certain degree of kindly benevolence […], this lecturer should attract more and more students (not credit hunters), if he should become an influence at the university? What if the university should become in the course of years a perfect hive of such bees? […] It would modify our departmental boss-system, our worship of "credits," and other traits of the secondary schools; it would stimulate scholarly life at the university; it would foster a healthy competition in scholarly work, promote survival of the fittest, and keep older men from rusting.
Unabashedly Darwinian, Flügel was convinced that his own contingent appointment back in Germany had pushed him, and pushed all Privatdozenten, to become competitive, cutting-edge researchers and captivating classroom teachers until one of the coveted state-funded chair positions might become available. He held that the introduction of this specific academic concept was instrumental at furthering the innovative character and international reputation of higher education in Germany. Flügel himself had thrived under the competitive conditions, of course, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to make a number of auspicious foundational moves: He took on co-editorship of Anglia, today the oldest continually published journal worldwide focusing exclusively on the study of “English.” And he founded Anglia Beiblatt, a review journal that quickly established an international reputation.
Despite his formidable achievements, however, he could not secure a chair position as quickly as he hoped. Since he was among the very few late 19th-century German professors of English who possessed near-native proficiency, he began to consider opportunities overseas. Even the dire warnings from a number of east coast colleagues ("the place seems farther away from Ithaca, than Ithaca does from Leipzig"; "they have at Stanford a library almost without books") could not scare him away. Once he had begun his academic adventure in the Californian wilderness, he took on a gargantuan research project, the editorship of the Chaucer Dictionary, offered to him by Frederick James Furnivall, the most entrepreneurial among British Chaucerians and founder of the Chaucer Society. As soon as he took over from colleagues who had given up on the project, he found, in this pre-computer age of lexicography, "slips of all sizes, shapes, colors, weights, and textures, from paper that was almost tissue paper to paper that was almost tin. Every slip contained matter that had to be reconsidered, revised, and often added to or deleted.”
Undeterred by this disastrous state of affairs, he decided to resolve the problem with typically enterprising determination: Although grant writing was uncharted territory for him, he applied for and secured three annual grants for $7,500 and one for $11,000 (altogether the equivalent of at least $300,000 in today’s money!) from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching between 1904 and 1907 "for the preparation of a lexicon for the works of Geoffrey Chaucer," bought himself some time away from Stanford, and signed up a dozen colleagues and students in Europe and North America to assist him in his grand plan.
His and their work would become the foundation of the compendious Middle English Dictionary which now graces every decent college library in the English-speaking world and beyond. Beyond the work on the Chaucer Dictionary, the completion of which he never saw because of his sudden death in 1914, he maintained an impressive publication record and served in leadership positions such as the presidency of the Pacific Branch of the American Philological Association. When Flügel passed away, his American colleagues celebrated his "enthusiastic idealism" and remembered him as "more essentially American" than the other foreign-born colleagues they knew, an appreciation due to his entrepreneurial spirit.
I am relating this story to counteract the often defeatist chorus sung by colleagues in English and other humanities departments when confronted with a request, usually from impatient administrators in more grant-active areas, for at least giving grant writing and other entrepreneurial activities a try. There is no doubt that, compared to the situation in most other Western democracies, government support through the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts is small in the U.S. Conversely, the number of private foundations, from the American Council of Learned Societies through the Spencer Foundation, makes up for some of the difference.
In my experience, what keeps the majority of English professors from even considering an involvement with entrepreneurial activities is that they deem them an unwelcome distraction from the cultural work they feel they have been educated, hired, and tenured to do. Most grant applications require that scholars explain not only the disciplinary, but also the broader social and cultural relevance of their work. In addition, they entail that scholars put a monetary value on their planned academic pursuits and create a bothersome budget sheet, learn how to use a spreadsheet, develop a timeline, and compose an all-too-short project summary, all grant-enabling formal obstacles many colleagues consider beneath the dignity of their profession.
In fact, many of us believe that the entire discipline of English and the humanities in general may have been created so as to counterbalance the entrepreneurial principles and profit motives which, from within the English habitat, seem to have a stranglehold over work in colleges of business, computing, engineering, and science. However, by making English a bastion of (self-)righteous resistance against the evil trinity of utilitarianism, pragmatism, and capitalism, English professors have relinquished the ability to be public intellectuals and to shape public discourse. After all, too many of our books and articles speak only to ourselves or those in the process of signing up to our fields at colleges and universities.
Ewald Flügel labored hard to remain socially and politically relevant even as he was involved in professionalizing and institutionalizing the very discipline we now inhabit. Recognizing that the skills and kinds of knowledge provided by his emerging field were insufficient for solving complex real-world issues, he became a proponent of a more co-disciplinary approach to academic study, a kind of cultural studies scholar long before that term was invented. Most of us would agree that he applied his formidable linguistic and literary expertise to a number of problematic goals, speaking to academic and public audiences about how the steadily increasing German immigration and the powers of German(ic) philology should and would inevitably turn the United States into an intellectual colony of his beloved home country. However, even if his missionary zeal reeks of the prevailing nationalist zeitgeist, I can appreciate his desire to experiment, innovate, and compete to make the study of historical literature and language as essential to the academy and to humanity as did his approximate contemporaries Roentgen, Eastman, Edison, Diesel, Marconi, and Pasteur with their scientific endeavors.
Perhaps his example might entice some of us to revisit and even befriend the idea of entrepreneurship, especially when it involves NGOs or the kind of for-profit funding sources the Just Enough Profit Foundation might define as (only) "mildly predatory" or (preferably) "somewhat," "very" and "completely humanistic." At the very least, Flügel’s biography provides evidence that today’s prevailing anti-entrepreneurial mindset has not always been among the constitutive elements defining the "English" professoriate.
There are encouraging signs that some colleagues in English studies have begun to abandon that mindset: George Mason University’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship (directed by Paul Rogers, a professor of English) and the University of Texas consortium on Intellectual Entrepreneurship (directed by Richard Cherwitz, a professor of rhetoric and communication), generate promising cross-disciplinary collaboration between the academy and society; English professors at Duke, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are among the national leaders testing the pedagogical viability of the controversial massive open online courses (MOOCs); and Ellito Visconsi of the University of Notre Dame, and Bryn Mawr colleague Katherine Rowe created Luminary Digital Media LLC, a startup that distributes their "Tempest for iPad," an application designed for social reading, authoring, and collaboration for Shakespeare fans with various levels of education. I believe Ewald Flügel would find these projects exciting.
Richard Utz is professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.