Does penmanship matter?

Two handwriting stories.

One:  After I got a D in penmanship in third grade, my parents made me sit at our dining room table every night practicing my handwriting.

The reason I’d gotten a similarly bad grade in arithmetic was that my “8”s were so sloppy.  The upper loop of my figure-eight was large, while the lower loop was very small, a hurried and barely discernible afterthought.  Although I could clearly tell they were “8”s, my teacher claimed they looked like zeroes to her and marked all my answers wrong.

I knew she could read my numbers, but she didn’t like tolerating my individual “style,” as it were.  School was already too full of rules, and I felt embarrassed and angry that even my handwriting should be wrested away from my control.

Today I make my numeral “8”s in the form of two separate circles stacked atop one another instead of the usual single-swooped figure-eight symbol.  No chance of anyone mistaking my “8”s for zeroes now.  And my handwriting is pretty neat and attractive when I’m not in a hurry.

Two:  My college diploma is in an envelope somewhere in a filing cabinet or box in my house.  I’ve never even considered framing it.  Why?  I graduated as a “University Honors Scholar” with “high honors” in political science.  That distinction was added onto my diploma.

In the sloppiest calligraphy I’ve ever seen.

Whenever I looked at my diploma, I felt sad.  Embarrassed.  Ashamed.

I know that makes no sense.  But it’s how I felt.  After working so hard to achieve the University Honors Scholar distinction, my ugly diploma felt like a scornful slap in the face.  I would rather have received a plain, attractive diploma than such an ugly one with my so-called “honor” so carelessly acknowledged.

So back to the question of this post’s title:  Does penmanship matter?  Well, no.  And yes.

As this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Cursive is an Endangered Species,” points out, public schools no longer really teach cursive handwriting.  “Keyboarding” is the far more important skill.  Although cursive is introduced in the lower grades, significant classroom time is not devoted to it.  And soon, those lower grades may be taught by teachers who have never learned cursive themselves.

I’m a fast typist (er, “keyboarder” 🙂 ), but I can take notes MUCH faster in cursive handwriting.  If I were a student in a classroom lecture situation, I know I could take more and better notes by hand than other students could by keyboarding.  Students who can’t write fast in cursive, as the article points out, won’t take notes as well.

As a writing teacher, I also know that studies show a connection between creativity and writing in longhand that is different from what happens in composing at the keyboard.  Although I personally draft texts at the keyboard, all of my planning and outlining is done by hand.

But one thing that really intrigues me about the Chronicle article is the idea that manuscripts written in cursive might become impenetrable to future generations.  And just think of all the insights that are gleaned from handwriting analysis; studying keyboarded documents just won’t be the same.  Handwriting is personal, which I realized after reflecting upon my two past experiences that opened this post.

The handwritten lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” just sold for $2 million at Sotheby’s auction house.  John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for “A Day in the Life” sold for $1.2 million in 2010.

I doubt a Word document printout would fetch quite that much.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in Higher education, Life, Music, Popular culture, Teaching, Technology, Writing, blogging and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Does penmanship matter?

  1. Emily J. says:

    In 2nd grade, I tried to copy adult handwriting by being fast and messy. My 5 started to look like an S. In my brain, I was doing it right because that’s how grownups wrote. My teacher busted me for it and I was so confused. Poor little me. 🙂

  2. L. Palmer says:

    I’m starting to get concerned about future generations being able to read hand writing. Keyboarding is an essential skill, but it can be learned in a semester or two. Cursive is something that takes time and patience. I think it will survive, it just won’t be wide spread.

    • Excellent point! Learning to write in cursive may be a skill like math or art or playing a musical instrument in that it requires repetitive practice over time to fully acquire and internalize.

  3. Pingback: Education Reform | Where Has America Gone?

  4. Samir Chopra says:

    I’ve started writing with a fountain pen to get my ‘hand’ back!

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