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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Romanticizing the mundane

I'm lost as a teacher if I don't have a blackboard to chart each session's work. I use it to collect, record, notice patterns and/or discrepancies, classify, and then report on and extend student responses to our activities; I'd say that 2/3 of my aha! moments in the class come from us pointing to the work on the board and making a connection between what the students and I have written in chalk. A couple of downsides: I'm covered in chalk dust by the end of the class, and some other people (including some students) say that it takes up class time to write so much. In the future, I'd like to see how a smartboard could work for me and the students, but I'm OK for now with using that time to write in chalk.

I don't defend this practice in terms of nostalgia; it's just how I learn and teach best. I think it's useful to reformat knowledge in order to see new connections--from notes to grid when I'm making connections in a project (in the classroom or my own projects), from notes to diagram for other types of connections, from computer screen to printout when I'm proof-reading, from one genre of writing to another if I'm trying out an argument or an idea that could crystallize differently...

I'm struck by Anne Trubek's diagnosis of the decline narrative in her essay about the history of handwriting: it's spot-on for historicizing how we came to associate handwriting with character, intelligence, and, earlier on, even religious difference. I like her move of reading the nostalgic tendency in the calls to revive handwriting:
It took the printing press to create a notion of handwriting as a sign of self. For monks, whose illuminated manuscripts we now venerate as beautiful works of art (as they most certainly are), script was not self-expressive but formulaic, and rightly so. When the printing press was invented, the monks were worried about this new capricious technology, which was too liable to foibles and the idiosyncratic mark of the man helming the press. A hand-copied manuscript was for them then the authoritative, exact, regularized text. In his treatise, "In Praise of Copying," the 15th-century monk Trithemius argued that "printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance."

Handwriting slowly became a form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication. When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one. The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official. Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. So too today: Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion and personality, and handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity.

This transition, and the associations we make with old and new technologies, played out while millions of Americans were being Palmerized in school, and the Palmer Method is inextricably linked to a new writing technology that was starting to compete with handwriting: the typewriter.

I'm less sure about the notion of typing as "cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts." Technodeterminist me wants to push harder on that idea, to consider that the technology we use enables different kinds of thinking rather than just records it to greater or lesser degrees. That is, my thinking is tied to how I'm doing it, and in what form. My composition classes tend to bear this out: students do different work when they reformulate exercises into new genres, diagrams, grids, sentence structures, etc. And it so happens that the computer is very useful for facilitating and storing all of these experiments--more so than the chalky blackboard, which is useful for other types of work.

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