As a college professor, I am used to hearing excuses: I slept through my alarm. I had to study for an organic chemistry test so I missed class. Everyone in my dorm got the stomach flu. My fraternity brother ate my homework. However, I have begun to encounter with growing regularity a new type of justification. Part explanation, part apology, this excuse has to do with handwriting or, rather, students' inability to put pen or pencil to paper and produce something legible and meaningful.
The problem seems to be exacerbated when Blue Books are involved, but this discomfort with writing by hand extends beyond in-class exams. I have students, Millennials, tell me they need extra time on tests because they never learned how to write in cursive, and therefore labor through printing their answers. Indeed, recent shifts in elementary school curricula, likely coupled with budget shortfalls and a new generation of teachers, has meant an emphasis on penmanship, the art and craft of forming letters, has gone the way of the eight-track.
But this issue of writing by hand extends beyond function toward much deeper musings about identity, aesthetics, and certain forms of intimacy. One particularly eloquent student described handwriting as a kind of out-of-body experience: "It just doesn't feel like it is me writing if I am not on a computer," she said. This floored me, because for as long as I can remember, writing by hand has felt like an essential way for me to not only grapple with the world, but also to try, as the ancient Greeks remind us, to know thyself. My love for writing by hand takes many forms, and like most love affairs, is bittersweet, twisted in places, not immune to paradox and contradiction:
Love notes: To fall in love with someone is to follow the arc of his hand, to feel her reach out in words meant only for you. I'm sure we have all felt titillated by a text, but the sensibility and the care elicited by something handwritten can be magical, deceptive, perhaps, but magical nonetheless. To receive a love letter is to cherish the person behind those slanted or curved shapes that make affection real.
Letters: Beyond romantic love, handwritten letters between family members, friends or an acolyte and a mentor does not simply help to sustain relationships but can be instrumental in forming them, and in witnessing these relationships change with time. I think of the letters my grandparents and I have written to each other over the decades of my life, and the latter decades of theirs. My letters to them chart childhood, adolescence, and coming into my own skin as an adult recorded not only in what I shared but also how those thoughts were formed on the page, even what my signature looked like. Their letters to me began as deliberate, self-confident efforts to cross a generational divide. When reading their letters I learned something about them that never came out, or emerged differently, in person. As they aged, I watched this self-assurance slip toward quivers in the quill (or ballpoint, as the case may be), toward a tentativeness not quite childlike but no longer robust, not quite of this earth.
Journals: Notes to self in the form of a journal have always been a safe-haven, at times even an obsession. As a teen, the act of journaling became the one space I felt fully myself or fully able to question myself. I still remember the disorientation I experienced after becoming a new mother and then, shortly thereafter, landing a stressful and demanding tenure-track job. My practice of journaling went by the wayside for several years and, quite honestly, has never fully recovered. At a time when I was supposed to feel enlivened as a woman and composed professionally I felt more unmoored than ever. This was not just about the mommy blues or the academic monkey on my back; it was about a relationship with an innermost self that had begun to atrophy.
Field notes: Notebooks that fill a special desk drawer in my office are not just chronicles of the work I've done as an anthropologist. They are honest, raw records that reveal spaces of ignorance, pathways to collaboration, moments of struggle in language acquisition, breakthroughs of understanding. They include published information as well as information I would never publish. They contain my own shorthand: quirky yet patterned ways of referring key concepts or specific people that form a particular kind of "firewall" I would probably never be able to explain to a research ethics board. I return to my handwritten field notes often, not only to check something but also to remind myself in visceral, tactile ways of why I do what I do. The pages still smell like a Tibetan kitchen. They are smudged with soil or warped by rain from a particular place.
I am not an artist, but I find a blank page in a moleskin notebook or on a legal pad liberating in that it gives me space to doodle, literally and figuratively. Writing by hand allows sideways movement. To bend thoughts to your will. To call yourself out with an enervated strikethrough. These canvases allow us create texture and feeling not only about whatever we might be scribbling, but also between word and occasional image in ways that no stylus seems to capture.
Moreover, many of us have likely experienced "senders regret," that gnawing feeling we shouldn't have pressed that button and hurtled off a missive to a co-worker, a spouse, a parent. Writing by hand can help us to be more thoughtful communicators. Imagine how different life might be if we were made to scratch out, think about, and contemplate a response to an email that got our goat instead of letting our fingers do the talking.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not a Luddite. High school typing liberated me in different ways than becoming an avid journaler, and I would be lying if I said I didn't value the ability to communicate in quick or quixotic, clear or crucial ways through a computer, a tablet or a phone. However, writing by hand, as I have done here, is like playing acoustic music. It is more tonal, sometimes more tentative and often more soulful. The acoustic sensibility created by a fountain pen or a No. 2 pencil skating across paper remains profoundly different than the incessant, productive tapping of thumbs moving double time.