Teaching Writing By Hand in the Digital Age

Two recent articles from the Chronicle’s blog “The Conversation” that speak to the role and value of physically and intimately (and not virtually) learning the practice of writing.

The first comes from Joseph Harris, who visited with us in August 2012 for faculty workshops and conversation around his book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Harris responds to the recent frenzied interest in all things MOOC (online education being purveyed by Harvard and his own Duke University, among other elite universities) with “Teaching By Hand in a Digital Age.” Harris argues:

It’s argued that online courses can offer students models of such response. (So can textbooks.) And, in my own courses, I often ask students to share and discuss their writing with one another. But there’s a difference between being presented with a model or heuristic and working under the guidance of a teacher. I watch over and coach the work that my students do together. And I respond to what they write, too—in class, in conference, and on the page.

If we take ourselves out of that dialogue, out of the give and take of draft and response and revision, then we are no longer teachers but content providers. Well-designed assignments and curricula are important. But they are only the very start of good teaching. A textbook is not a course. And I don’t see how a MOOC can be much more than a digitized textbook.

The key right of any learner is to the attention of his or her teacher. As my friend Eli Goldblatt says, “We teach by hand”—by which I take him to mean that we teach not subjects or courses but individuals. I suspect we still need to figure out how to offer online learners that sort of care and responsiveness.

The second article is by Mark Bauerlein who contemplates an assignment having students copy out by hand (in cursive) an essay in “The Summer Assignment.” He writes:

As a behavior resulting from years of practice, student writing doesn’t readily submit to change. In spite of all the careful classroom instruction, when a student sits down in the library to write, the old habits and unconscious dispositions kick in.

Teaching, then, becomes a matter not of supplying knowledge but of altering behavior. To improve student writing, in other words, we must inculcate better habits and dispositions.  Needless to say, a typical semester of freshman composition (or remedial English) isn’t enough. Colleges need to raise the writing component of the general-education requirements, adding another semester to the single course in writing that prevails in higher education today.

Until that happens, writing instructors can boost their impact by reaching into the summer months with a daily writing assignment. The one I have in mind is an un-innovative, non-21st century, low-technology exercise: transcription.

Think of the practice of Roman schoolchildren, 12th-century monks, and Bartleby. In this case, teachers should select an appropriate book for individual students and ask each one to devote 30 minutes each morning or evening to transcribing the prose. Open the book, find your place, grab a pen, and copy the words down in your own notebook. The selections should exemplify elements of style and grammar that students need to assimilate, for instance, Orwell’s essays, Thoreau’s Walden, and other great works of clarity and expression.

Thirty minutes a day for 100 days will advance a deep understanding of written communication, an unconscious sense of where commas go, a feel for sentence length and rhythm, a larger vocabulary, and other usage habits. It sounds laborious, but the more they transcribe, the more they will internalize effective style and correct grammar.



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