|Essay exams are surely among the least favorite college experiences, at least partly
because students are not accustomed to writing by hand for long periods of time. The pages
of the first bluebook are fairly legible. By the
second hour, acute hand fatigue sets in, along with frustration at the tedious slowness of the pens movement across the page, and handwriting deteriorates to a scrawl. Submitting their exam books after two exhausting hours, many students offer an apologetic I hope you can read this.
Bridgewater students generally echo current national attitudes about handwriting. In theory, they believe that neatness and legibility are important, but most of them regard penmanship as a given, like eye color, something thats not within their power to change. I have always had messy penmanship and teachers tried to help me, one freshman confessed in a recent conversation, but I was a lost cause. Some students have given up cursive writing entirely and use print.
The Decline of Penmanship
Of course, there is no guarantee that note-takers will be able to read what they have written. My husband, who is a physician, belongs to a profession whose members are renowned for illegibility. He can often be seen staring at a page covered with his own strange, inscrutible marks, murmuring What does this mean?
A glance at library shelves provides further evidence of the decline of interest in handwriting. Self help guides with titles like Better Handwriting in 30 Days are likely to be 30 years old and are greatly outnumbered by guides to Wordperfect, Microsoft Word and the popular For Dummies series.
The decline of handwriting, however, preceded the computer era. Historian Tamara Plakins Thorntons recent book, Handwriting in America, records complaints about illegibility beginning in the 1930s. Increasing use of telephones, typewriters and dictating machines during the first half of the century reduced the need for handwritten documents. During the 1960s, many educators emphasized self-expression at the expense of rote learning, which further reduced the teaching of penmanship. Reformers argued that there was a better way for children to spend their time than copying the rows of loops and circles required by the Palmer method.
In earlier centuries, however, writing was a carefully-honed craft. People spent as many hours working to reproduce copybook models accurately as todays self-improvers might devote to the goal of firmer thighs and flatter tummies. However, as Thornton explains, there were several different models, and the particular model an individual was to copy depended on his or her gender, occupation and social class. Some scripts were reserved for women, others for gentlemen and others for middle-class young men preparing for business careers. Professional penmanship teachers helped students learn the appropriate kind of writing.
And even when computers are easily available, it seems, many people prefer to take notes by hand. According to a recent New York Times article, many workers at business meetings, in hospitals and in other job settings would rather write than type on a laptop. Or, to be more precise, they would rather scribble on a notepad and have their jottings appear transformed into print on computer screens. For these people, handwriting-recognition software, which translates handwritten notes into computer text files that can be edited, revised and printed, is being developed. The hand-recognition software currently available, according to the Times, works reasonably well if users print carefully in capital letters which, of course, most users dont. Most people scribble and then hope that the computer can read what they have written, as they once hoped that their professors could. Thus far, the computers response often seems to be I cant the new software has even more trouble deciphering handwritings than human readers do. Programs such as the Crosspad, developed by I. B. M. and the penmaker A. T. Cross, can be trained to read a specific users writing style, but this process apparently takes several hours and the results are not completely reliable.
The willingness to devote hours of practice to achieve neatness and uniformity in handwriting is clearly a thing of the past. Yet as we scribble and scrawl, a still, small voice is sometimes heard, whispering I hope I can read this.