writing long hand in the modern age

Those of you who know me, know that I carry around a paper journal and that I do a lot of writing long hand.  I’ve always done a lot of writing long hand, but I was thinking recently about the current generation of students.  What follows will, I suspect, prove to be fodder for further discussions and so I’m going to touch on a lot of things, diving into none of them deeply.  I should also note that what comes below, as all the posts in this blog, are my personal views and speculations.

For coursework, the essays and project work that we ask students to do during the semester, we allow them to use word processors or perhaps mathematical typesetting programmes such as LaTeX.  In fact, we tend to go a bit further and we require them, by and large, to produce electronic versions rather than write things out by hand.   The question is, why?

None of the documents I produce for the consumption of others are written out long hand.  This isn’t just because my handwriting tends to be somewhat indecipherable when I’m writing freely.  It’s also because I find, as I suspect many others find, that drafting and editing and redrafting is far far easier when using a word processor or suchlike.  I find a certain appeal to writing things out by hand, but this is a private appeal.

And so, I have come across a question.  Why do we ask students to write out 2 hour examinations long hand?  For a few subjects, such as mathematics, I see an argument, because typesetting mathematical symbols can be very time consuming.  But for many subjects, we are asking students to do something that they would not ordinarily do, and if fact that we as the teachers might not ordinarily do.

There is a significant logistical answer to this question, namely the difficulty in having enough machines which are sufficiently secure to be appropriate for examination conditions.  One issue here is that having a sufficient volume of machines to use during examination time would be difficult to justify, as they wouldn’t be used at other times of the semester or the other times of year.  Letting students use their own machines, even under supervised conditions, would create the opportunity for some students having greater access to materials and materiel than others, depending on what files folk would have on their machines and what access they would have to the internet, and it would be impossible to effectively police this.  

But this then just leads us back to the question that started us along this particular line.  Namely, why do we use 2 hour examinations at the end of the semester to gauge what students have learned over the course of a semester.  This is a much more difficult question.  On the one hand, having an end of semester examination allows us as teachers to test students under controlled conditions: do these questions, in this time, starting either with a blank examination book or having access to some set collection of material, formula sheets, et cetera.

But on the other hand, this sort of timed examination is not the sort of thing that most people face once they finish their university programme.   A few people will, when they take professional examinations, but a relatively few.  And so I’m starting to speculate, why do we need end of semester examinations, and if we move to something else, what might that something else be. 

I am not the first person to think about this, not by a long way, and the increase of coursework only or coursework majority modules is a significant sign that this is not only something that people are thinking about, but it is something that people are working on.  And so let’s leave this one for the moment.

The next question, moving back one more step, is why we structure the information we deliver by the semester.  Again, there are strong reasons for doing so, and not just the inertia of history keeping us doing the same thing over time.  But I do think that there is an interesting point here for ponderation, namely how we structure the ways in which we structure the material we deliver.  And this isn’t even getting into the question of how we deliver material, which is a massive question in its own right.

One thing that is interesting is that the deeper we dig into these questions and the more we start to question some of the fundamental ways in which higher education institutions are structured educationally, there are institutions doing things differently.  But I do think that universities with large numbers of students face particular challenges.  Over time, we’ll try and come back to some of these, but I think I need to do a bit of reading first, to find out what the current state of the art is.

I suspect that for you, as for me, this has been a somewhat unsatisfactory point at which to conclude.  I have raised a lot of questions, with no clear answers, but I do think that the shape of higher education is changing.  And I think it’s going to be an exciting ride.

~ by Jim Anderson on 1 May 2016.

One Response to “writing long hand in the modern age”

  1. I can’t speak for academia in general, but I’ve recently gone back to writing with fountain pens, and I’m loving it. Of course I still write my books using a word processor (I use Scrivener for writing projects), but I keep a day book on my desk by my elbow, my version of a Bullet Journal (bulletjournal.com) with added (indexed) notes, and I’m loving using my fountain pens. Yes, I confess I’ve bought a few new ones, not expensive, but interesting. However my best ‘find’ was in the back of my desk drawer – two pens that had been sitting there neglected for forty years. One was the Parker 51 which belonged to my late dad. He bought it when he got his first Personnel Management job, and he lent it to me to sit my ‘Eleven Plus’ exam. The other is the Parker 61 which my parents bought me for passing said exam, and which I used all the way through school, sitting both O-Levels and A-Levels with it and also my college exams. (Much more essay writing in those days. No multiple choice questions.) After all this time I figured the the ink reservoirs would have rotted, but no… I filled them both up and they are writing perfectly, working well alongside my new Lamy Joy, Jinhao, Kaweko Sport, Pilot Metropolitan (italic), and a set of cheap but delightful Pilot Petits in three different colours. I’m hooked on fountain pens again. Any excuse to go shopping for a new one! I even bought some Diamine Shimmering Ink in the ‘Enchanted Ocean’ colourway. I’m now waiting to see which pen runs out first so I can try it. Maybe handwriting will soon become a lost art, and fountain pens a thing for cranks and collectors. I hope not. Perhaps I should buy my kids fountain pens for Christmas.

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