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13 Oct

The slow death of cursive – So here’s another entry, only a few days since the last one. Never fear—I can pretty much guarantee that this won’t become a habit. It has been a while since I have written an entry based on something I read on the internet, but I was intrigued by a WaPo article I found via Kottke’s remaindered links. This is not really breaking news, so if you’ve read any number of recent articles about how handwriting is becoming a lost art in the digital age, you might be able to give this article a miss. If you haven’t, you might want to read it so that we’re on the same page. I’ll wait. (By the way, when I started writing this entry I was high on Actifed, so if the first part seems a bit... off, well, you’ll know why.)

“The only thing I use cursive for these days is to sign my name, and even that has become pretty near illegible.”

Back? Good. The article brings up a number of points, most of which I don’t fully agree with. What got my attention and kept me reading, though, was the second paragraph of the article: “When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.”

The clipped, blunt tone of the last three “sentences” is apparently calculated to make printing in block letters sound like a heinous sin. Ms. Pressler might have well written: “The rest? They engaged in bestiality. With sheep.”

Let me back up for a moment here. This being Liminality, where everything is ultimately about me, me, and me, I’d like to talk briefly about my experience with handwriting. Cursive and I have never been good friends. In fact, we’ve had a very rocky relationship throughout the years. Sure, cursive tried to seduce me with its curves and fancy lines while I was still young and impressionable, but whenever I tried to make it work on my own I was left with only erratic squiggles and a broken heart. I said goodbye to cursive the day they stopped forcing us to write it in school. From then on it was printing. Block letters. With sheep.

Even my block letters tend to be sloppy, though. And it’s not just English. I have written in a number of languages, and in each language I manage the same spectacular failure to achieve anything close to good penmanship. When I studied Japanese in university, my TA (whom I saw for the first time in over a decade this past summer) told me that I wrote like a child. No one makes fun of my Korean penmanship, but I’m guessing that’s only because you just don’t comment on penmanship anymore when you get to graduate school. Or maybe Koreans aren’t nearly as obsessed with penmanship as some people in the States. (They obsess over other things, like whether or not we should eliminate Chinese characters from the language or how fast the language is going down the crapper because of internet shorthand.)

The only thing I use cursive for these days is to sign my name, and even that has become pretty near illegible. I can indeed write my name so that it is more or less readable, but I usually don’t. Why? Well, mostly because of my credit card—my English name is much longer than the average Korean name and thus takes longer to write. Even using only my first initial and my family name, I still have to scribble it post-haste or the people waiting for my signature become visibly agitated. I kid you not. How hectic has life become when you can’t wait an extra second for someone to sign their name? But that’s another story entirely. Suffice it to say that the only remaining use for cursive in my life doesn’t even resemble penmanship anymore.

Why should we care? What does it matter if no one uses cursive anymore? The WaPo article makes a number of different claims at the beginning and then expounds on them later. Just for clarity, here are the points:

  1. The new SAT essay question requires that responses be written by hand.
  2. There is a correlation between handwriting skills and complexity of thought in written compositions.
  3. Knowledge of handwriting is necessary for decoding handwritten documents.
  4. Handwriting is valuable for “its beauty, individualism and intimacy.”

I’m going to deal with these points out of order for the sake of flow, taking the last two points first and then returning to the first two points. The third point is that a knowledge of handwriting is valuable because it allows one to decode handwritten documents. I agree. Most of the original texts I study in my major are handwritten, and it takes a fair amount of training to be able to read them. This does not mean that I actually have to learn how to write this way, though. I can see how teaching the reading of cursive might be helpful for some students, but I don’t think you need to be able to write cursive to read it.

The fourth point is quite subjective. Anyone who talks about the beauty of cursive has obviously never seen my handwriting. No doubt some people have beautiful penmanship. Is that beauty enough of an argument for preservation? Whenever something is on the verge of disappearing there will always appear a number of people who will argue for its preservation based on its intrinsic beauty or artistry. You can’t really argue with this claim, but if this were the only real reason to preserve cursive, it wouldn’t be much of an argument.

I dealt with those two points first because, as far as I am concerned, they were easier to rebut. The first two points, on the other hand, require a little more thought. I can see how not being able to write legibly might be a disadvantage on the new SAT essay question. Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University, “worries that students who remain printers... need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT.” Perhaps, but by the time I got to SAT age, my printing was quite fast. Not as fast as cursive (or, I should say, as fast as my cursive would have been had I actually used it past the third grade), but still pretty fast. Fast enough, I think, that I would not have lost all that much time by not writing in cursive on an SAT essay question.

I can sympathize with this argument, though, thanks to my recent experience with the qualification exam for my doctoral dissertation. The major section of the exam is a single handwritten essay. In Korea, people always print on tests and other official occasions, saving cursive-like writing (which is different from English cursive in that the letters aren’t connected to each other) for things like letters or diaries (I guess). Still, I was at a disadvantage because my writing speed is slower than that of the average Korean and I was not able to write down as much as some of the other test-takers. But I don’t think my ability to formulate my argument suffered, and there is something to be said for brevity. If you can say something in fewer words, it will often be more effective than a rambling essay.

But the problem is more than just the amount of time it takes to write an essay. I did a quick Google search and came up with a number of other sources, one of them an audio file that includes snippets of an interview with Dr. Graham (by the way, the latest research cited in many of these articles won’t be published until next year, so I had no choice but to work from second-hand sources). In this interview he explains that it is not just the amount of time it takes to write the essay, it is also the amount of ideas you can hold in memory while writing:

If you have very slow handwriting and you’re trying to keep in memory some ideas you want to get on paper, there’s the problem of losing some of those ideas before you can actually get them written down.

I can understand what he is saying here, but isn’t that why we were taught to do quick outlines before starting to write an essay? I don’t care how fast you write or how good your memory is, if you’re hoping to just start writing an essay cold and get all those good ideas in your head down on paper in an orderly fashion, you’re most likely in for a rude awakening. When I took my qualification exam I set aside five minutes at the beginning to do a quick brainstorm and then organized the points I came up with into a rough outline. From there it was just a matter of writing out the essay. I didn’t have to worry about ideas being lost. So from where I stand, what is needed to combat this problem is not quicker handwriting but better outlining skills. As a bonus, the type of thinking required to write a good outline is useful in many different situations, not just timed essays.

There is a final aspect to this argument, discussed briefly in the WaPo article but covered in a little more depth in another snippet from the audio interview. This aspect does not concern the writing of the essay but how the scorers perceive the essay:

For kids whose handwriting is less legible, the scorers will not be able to ignore that, even though they are going to be given directions to ignore handwriting when scoring for ideation and quality of content. There’s a lot of research that suggests that adults cannot do that.

This is one aspect of the argument for which I don’t have a ready rebuttal. It does make sense that people would see a sloppily written essay is inherently less organized, even if it has no flaws in structure or content. My only reply to this would be that most students would obviously be better off printing. Which is the answer, to abandon cursive in favor of print or to teach more cursive in school?

To complicate matters, the WaPo article notes: “Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print.” So which is it: does writing in cursive really help you convey your ideas better or are the scorers simply unable to shake free of the preconceived notion that people who write in cursive are somehow smarter? I believe (and I think Dr. Graham probably also believes) it is the latter. My handwriting may not be the neatest, but with a little effort I can produce some fairly good-looking print. My cursive, though, is pretty much unsalvageable (a little later on I’ll discuss just how unsalvageable it is). Are we printers going to be labeled less intelligent simply because of the style of handwriting we use?

This is where I think the cursive people are reading too much into Dr. Graham’s remarks. When segueing into the audio interview snippet I quoted just above, the woman presenting the report says, “There’s a general tendency among all of us to equate neat, legible handwriting with intelligence.” The proponents of cursive would have us equate “handwriting” with “cursive” and (mis)perception (that is, the equation of neat handwriting with intelligence) with reality—but this is not what Dr. Graham is talking about. In another article I found online, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dr. Graham has this to say: “It is not cursive that is critical, but being able to fluently and legibly write.” This would seem to indicate that either cursive or print would be fine, as long as you can write fluently and legibly.

Moving on to the second (and, for us, final) point, the WaPo article puts the issue as follows:

The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better -- a lifelong benefit.

It goes on to mention a study done that Dr. Graham and a colleague conducted with first-graders that showed a correlation between writing speed and both complexity of expressed thoughts and sentence construction skills. I found the explanation for this in a publication from the University of Maryland titled Exemplars of Education Research. An article entitled “On the Frontier of Literacy” says that Dr. Graham and his colleague “suspected that students who have to stop and think about how to form a letter or spell a word tend to lose their train of thought while composing.”

I can buy that, but this would seem to apply only to young children. Maybe I have an exceptional memory, but I’ve always been a pretty decent writer—even before word processing became the norm, when I had to write by hand. And even if we do accept the results of this study (and I see no reason not to), it says nothing about cursive. All it says is that children need to be able to know how to form letters and spell words to improve their writing, not that they need to be able to write cursive.

To me, at least, it would seem that this second argument for cursive holds little water. Taken together, I don’t really find the four points mentioned in the WaPo article that persuasive. As far as these four points are concerned, fluent print handwriting would be a valid substitute for cursive. Rather, the article seems to indicate that maybe it is the SAT that needs to change, not the focus on handwriting. After all, the three major SAT-based concerns (the amount one is able to write, the amount of ideas one is able to hold in memory, and legibility) would be solved if students could type their essays on computers, no?

But that’s another story. We’re talking about handwriting here, so I’ll get back to the subject. Despite being unconvinced by the original article, I did find other articles on the internet that gave me pause—in particular an article from the New York Times (that is almost two years old now—Liminality, your source for fast-breaking news). It raises the issue of note-taking in class:

(Important update: It has been brought to my attention that the following excerpt from the New York Times misquoted Ms. Gladstone. She had told the reporter “one hundred letters per minute,” not “one hundred words per minute,” and the New York Times failed to make the correction even after they were notified of the error. As a result, some of what I wrote in the following paragraphs turns out to have been based on incorrect information. The passages based on this information have been struck out and additional explanation has been appended where necessary to clarify. The point that print is probably not as suited for note-taking as cursive—and that I never was a good note-taker anyway—still stands, but the incredible claim that one needs to write a hundred words a minute is the unfortunate product of lazy journalism. My apologies to Ms. Gladstone; I hope this helps set the record straight.)

In high school and college, any student without a 24/7 laptop cannot hope to keep accurate notes on a lecture course. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting specialist based in Albany, estimates that while a student needs to jot down 100 legible words letters a minute to follow a typical lecture, someone using print can manage only 30.

Is that so? Being the insatiable academic I am, I decided to put this statement to the test. I took a random page from the University of Maryland publication mentioned above and started copying down text in print. I was able to get 34 words down in a minute. They were barely legible, but this isn’t unusual for me. Then I tried typing a different paragraph in the same article and got 61 words in a minute. (And if we calculate at one hundred letters per minute, both of these figures would probably be enough to follow a typical lecture.) The article was a bit complex, and I probably would be able to get more down via both methods if I were taking notes in a lecture, but I don’t think I could get anywhere near a hundred using print.

Just for kicks I decided to try the same experiment in cursive. To my horror, I found that I had actually forgotten how to write in cursive, and I managed only twelve words in a minute (which is definitely not a hundred words per minute—I can’t imagine trying to takes notes in cursive at this point). I felt very much like a first-grader in one of Dr. Graham’s experiments. Apparently cursive is lost to me at this point, and print is the only handwriting skill I have left. These days, of course, any note-taking situation I find myself in requires me to write in Korean. Korean word count is much different from English and fairly worthless for comparison purposes, but suffice it to say that my typing speed in Korean is only 50% faster than my handwriting speed, which tells me that my Korean typing speed is pretty slow compared to my English typing speed. But I already knew this.

So, without the speed advantage of cursive, how did I get through high school and university? With only thirty words or so a minute (and this only if I were writing non-stop, which never happened), how could I have possibly taken sufficient notes for all those classes? The answer is that I didn’t. I have never been a big note-taker. It is possible that my writing speed had something to do with it, but I think it had far more to do with my personality and the way I learn. So how did I manage to pass all those classes? Well, it helps that I am a speed reader. Most of what is covered in most lectures can also be gleaned from the readings, and I think that is how I got most of my information. I was also very selective in my note-taking—you develop a sense for when the prof is saying something important that should really be written down.

There is another explanation for how I managed to get through all those classes taking notes at only thirty or so words per minute, an explanation that I didn’t consider the first time around. After finishing this entry and going back to read it through again, I did a double take when I came to this line in the above quote: “a student needs to jot down 100 legible words a minute to follow a typical lecture.” Hold on—a hundred words a minute? What kind of notes are we taking here? I decided to conduct another experiment, reading from the same article I used in the above writing experiments, and in one minute I managed to read 152 words at a comfortable pace. And that was reading straight from the page. I wouldn’t be surprised if most lecturers uttered far fewer words than that when talking off the cuff. Time is taken out for thinking, for pauses, for writing on the board, for destroying students’ cell phones, etc. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the average number of words uttered per minute in a lecture was somewhere around one hundred. In other words, Ms. Gladstone (whose expertise is in handwriting, mind you) would have us transcribing lectures verbatim. An intelligent student should have little problem condensing the import of a lecture to at least 33% of its original volume, which could also explain how I managed to make it through all those classes. (It could, but of course it doesn’t—I really did take very few notes in class, and I stick to the reasons I gave in the above paragraph to explain my own experience.)

So, I managed to get through high school, university, and a MA degree (and this last one in a foreign language at that) without very good note-taking skills. I might have done better had I taken better notes, but I have no complaints. Like I said, most of the information I absorb is through reading, and lectures are there to reinforce that and offer the occasional bit of professorial insight and wisdom. Do I feel I have suffered because of my lack of skill in cursive? No. Do I feel sad about having lost this skill, most likely forever? I am a bit surprised, to be honest, but I have no regrets. (Update: apparently my cursive is not an entirely lost cause. I wrote this bit in an email to That David Guy this morning: “When I was lying in bed last night I started picturing writing cursive in my mind... and the letters started coming back to me. So I sat down this morning and started writing out random sentences in cursive, and I discovered that I hadn't forgotten it after all. I think it was the timed nature of the experiment and the sudden pressure to write cursive after having not used it for so long that made me choke. Of course, my cursive still looks like it is written by a five-year-old.”)

I’ve tried to keep this entry on topic, but I’ve still covered a lot of ground. By way of wrapping things up, I’d like to summarize my conclusions. Firstly, I can see how the introduction of a written essay question on the SAT might shine new light on the issue of handwriting, but I don’t think it gives the cursive preservationists as much ammunition as they hope (or think) it does. While cursive does have the advantage of speed, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference at the level of students taking the SAT.

Secondly, I think people are confusing the perception of cursive with the reality of cursive. The perception is that someone with neat, fluid cursive handwriting may be more intelligent or refined, but the the research quoted says nothing about the reality of this perception. In fact, Dr. Graham specifically says that the choice between cursive and print is a non-issue as long as the handwriting is fluent and legible. People may think you’re smarter if you write in cursive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are certain situations (job applications, for example) where you might want to have every possible advantage.

Thirdly, I think the speed advantage of cursive is overrated in academic situations, which are probably the only situations where speed really counts (unless you’re a secretary who takes dictation). We all have different skill sets we bring to the table, and intelligent individuals will compensate for weaknesses in one area with strengths in another. Someone who is not the note-taking type might record lectures and then play them back for transcription later, for example. Or, like me, they might get more from reading the texts than the actual lectures. And, as my lecture speed experiment showed, we probably don’t need to write down nearly as many words as the handwriting experts would have us believe. At any rate, the ability to take fast and legible notes is a valuable skill, but it is only one of many that can be used to achieve the same ultimate goal.

By now my final verdict should come as no surprise: I would not shed a single tear should cursive go the way of the dodo. I won’t deny that there is something beautiful about flowing cursive script, and I say more power to those who want to preserve it as an art form. When I was in elementary school, all kids participated in art class. I don’t remember anything about those earlier art classes, but from what I know about my artistic ability, I probably produced some real masterpieces of modern art. The great thing was that no one cared if I drew trees that looked like hairy lollipops or sheep that looked like clouds impaled on pikes. Imagine if cursive were taught as part of the art curriculum and kids who showed ability and/or interest could spend more time on it. Yes, this ignores the communicative function of cursive, but that’s kind of my point—as a tool of communication, cursive is a relic of the past, and its role will only continue to be downgraded as time goes on. This SAT-induced furor is only temporary—I would not be the least bit surprised if the essay question was computerized in the future.

Had I done better in penmanship as a child, had I taken a liking to cursive and continued to use it, I might feel differently. But with the field of human knowledge growing exponentially day by day, do we really need to spend time educating children in an archaic art form? I’m sure that at some point in the past someone declared that society would collapse into a quivering heap of uneducated morons if Latin was no longer taught in public schools, yet here we are (hmm, on second thought...). The classicist in me is jumping up and down right now, screaming that I can’t possibly dismiss cursive so easily. But the pragmatist is nodding his head and smiling. Today, at least, I’m feeling pragmatic.

And on a slightly ironic note, today’s entry was one of the longest I have written in quite a while—my hand would have probably fallen off by the sixth paragraph if I had to write all this out on paper. Long live technology!

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