Monday, June 18, 2012

Cursed Cursive

Several years ago I briefly dated a man with young children. Anybody who knows me can well imagine why that relationship did not last more than a few weeks. I feel about children the way Republicans feel about taxes. They might be necessary for the continuation of society, but whatever. That, though, is not the point of this post. What did stick with me from that dating experience was that he once mentioned that his daughter was not learning cursive writing in school. After all, he argued, they do everything on the computer now anyway. Why would they need such an antiquated skill? Living in the shadow of Decaying Midwestern Urban Center, I figured that this astounding news was just another local failing in an already pretty dismal school system. The antipathy that the rest of the nation feels for this region had now cost students the very ability to communicate on paper! Not only do we not deserve jobs or a well-maintained infrastructure, but it appeared that we also shouldn’t be able to jot down a grocery list with speed! It always feels good to have righteous indignation about the nation’s uncaring attitude toward the industrial Midwest.

The past year of teaching, however, revealed that this was no local anomaly. You see I taught the U.S. History survey for the first time in many years. Consider it the jury duty of the history professorate. Since I do my best to give even freshman students an idea of what professionals historians actual do, I often assign some significant amount of writing. I began to notice that students took an unusually long time to complete even the most basic in-class essay. Even a paragraph took what seemed like a century. Then I observed that each of them always submitted about a page of neatly block-printed prose. Each letter of each word seemed like it had been crafted with more attention than John Hancock’s signature on a forged ship’s manifesto. Well, if John Hancock had never learned cursive writing. It brought me back to what the former boyfriend had mentioned about his own children. Had we reached the point where students no longer even knew how to write cursive? Little did I know it was deeper than that.

It really did not cross my mind again for another several weeks. In the meantime, I had assigned a document reader of historical sources entitled American History Firsthand: Working with Primary Sources. This choice proved imperfect to be sure. After all, this careful collection of materials lacked a single document from any Latina/o – ever. Apparently the editors imagined that no such people existed in this country despite the fact that they are now the largest minority population. But I digress.

I selected this particular reader, despite its implicit anti-Latino bias, because of what it did do: mixing popular culture, visual, and political documents in one binding. It also reproduced those documents as closely as they might have appeared in an actual archive. This, I thought, simulated the work of actual historians without having to march all my students to an actual archive. After all, the idea of 170 students descending on a manuscript collection would make any archivist sweat more than Rick Santorum in a gay sauna.

The students in this class performed quite well and showed that they had smart and savvy skills. One day, though, when it came time to discuss a series of letters in the reader, they became oddly silent. After using up the usual bag of tricks to try and promote conversation, I asked them what was the deal? With some hemming and hawing, a lone brave student admitted that he couldn’t read the documents because they were in cursive. The rest of the students, happy that he had released the shameful truth, all agreed that the letters were unfathomable. This blew my mind. I mean, it was one thing to have never mastered writing cursive, but reading it was now out of the question? To be clear, too, I did not assign colonial-era documents written with the fluff and frills of old English. That mess could screw anybody up with all those "f's" that are really "s's". No, no. These were something written in the twentieth century with a clear and simple penmanship. I became curious and asked if they learned any cursive at all. They acknowledged that they spent a few days or so on it back in grade school. It was enough to learn a signature, but otherwise, why bother? They could type whatever they needed.

I suppose that there is a logic in the demise of cursive. When was the last time any of us wrote an actual letter to somebody? Anything longer than a sticky note is generally done on a computer. Yet, I can’t explain my unease that cursive is leaving the world.

It is peculiar that I should think such a thing since I have actually always struggled with my penmanship. In grade school I had only one Achilles heel to an otherwise spotless academic record. After all, I played well with others, never ran with scissors, and only occasionally ate library paste. Yet, my report card always listed a “carrottop” for handwriting. For those who did not attend Albuquerque Public Schools, a carrottop was this symbol: ^. It basically meant a “D”, but apparently educational theory in the 1980s suggested letter grades would be too demeaning to a third grader. A carrottop must have sounded so much more pleasant. It’s something you would give Peter Rabbit on his report card. Well, if Peter Rabbit’s future education hung precariously by a thread because he appeared functionally illiterate.

Forever after that point teachers would usually have only one complaint about my school work: “The boy’s handwriting is so messy and small that I almost went blind trying to read it.” It would not be until my freshman year in college that my handwriting improved dramatically. Oddly enough, it was a semester of Russian that turned things around quite a bit. While I can do nothing in that language other than ask directions to the Bolshoi theater, attempting to learn Russian had an odd side effect of transforming my penmanship. Having to learn an entirely new script meant that I also indirectly relearned how to write in cursive in English. This is not to say that I now write in calligraphy (I still field many complaints about my writing), but it is a vast improvement.

This peculiar knowledge about writing cursive puts an odd generational divide between my students and me. For instance, I will have to remember when I grade their papers to block print my comments. Oh, look at me, thinking they would actually read my comments on their papers! Silly, optimistic, GayProf. Nonetheless, it feels quite weird to have such a big gap between them and me. I am not that much older.

True, there are many other things that I do that would seem totally anachronistic to them as well. I proudly drive a car with a manual transmission – Anything else really isn’t really driving. I grill only with charcoal – Anything else isn’t barbequing, it’s just cooking outside. I still pay almost all my bills with actual checks – Anything else seems like a one-way path to identity theft. I therefore long ago accepted that I fell far behind in the social/technological world of my students. I would know if I was tweeting, right?

So it makes me a bit sad to think cursive is at as great a risk as Lindsay Lohan is for a relapse. If you remember this blog then you already know that I am more than a bit inclined to nostalgia. This morning’s coffee has already become a treasured bittersweet memory of something now gone.

The loss of cursive, though, really leaves me blue. It only speeds us even faster to becoming a cyborg nation. As much as I struggled with cursive, I do remember that learning it felt like a rite of passage on the way to adulthood. My mother always had to translate the notes or birthday cards that my grandparents sent in the mysterious scroll. Learning to write (even feebly) in the same manner felt the same as breaking the code of the Rosetta Stone to my nine-year old self. Now it appears that later generations will find the code forever locked to them.


Roger Owen Green said...

First marking period, third grade, I actually DID receive a D in handwriting; I was careful enough to get it up to a C.

vuboq said...

I hope you appreciate the stationery:

kitten said...

I had to copy sections of my grammar book in high school if my teacher couldn't read my writing. My kid hasn't learned it yet but will - the first printing they taught him was curvy and specifically aimed at making it easier to transition to cursive. (Even if they don't teach him in school, he's fascinated by it and by postcards from Gramma, so he'll likely teach himself.)

KateGladstone said...

Handwriting matters ... But does cursive matter?

Research shows: the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. They join only some letters, not all of them: making the easiest joins, skipping the rest, and using print-like shapes for those letters whose cursive and printed shapes disagree. (Citation: Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HANDWRITING STYLE AND SPEED AND LEGIBILITY. 2001: on-line at — and there are actually handwriting programs that teach this way.)
Reading cursive still matters -- this takes just 30 to 60 minutes to learn, and can be taught to a five- or six-year-old if the child knows how to read. The value of reading cursive is therefore no justification for writing it.
Remember, too: whatever your elementary school teacher may have been told by her elementary school teacher, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over signatures written in any other way. (Don't take my word for this: talk to any attorney.)

Yours for better letters,

Kate Gladstone — CEO, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
Director, the World Handwriting Contest
Co-Designer, BETTER LETTERS handwriting trainer app for iPhone/iPad

Zundian said...

Oh my lord, I thought you were dead! Welcome back, young man.

GayProf said...

ROG: In third grade, I could barely make a letter "C" much less earn one for handwriting.

VUBOQ: I might be inclined to marry a guy with Starfleet stationary.

Kitten: It's good to hear that some schools are still inclined to teach cursive.

Kate: Well, my students seem to be early adapters of your methods...

Zundian: Not dead, just quiet.

Mel said...

Actually, I've been writing using Kate's method since before most of your students were born. I use ligatures where they speed the process, but I'd say at least 50% of my letters are print. I always got poor marks for penmanship, too, and I sort of evolved into the hybrid form over time because it was more efficient for me, and more legible, even if not terribly pretty. Where I fall down in the legibility department is with m/n/u, which I tend to write now with European-style cursive - i.e., a bunch of inky bunting that requires some contextual interpretation.

That said, I couldn't imagine not being able to read cursive at all. I get to interpret a lot of handwritten notes from my colleagues, since some of them still work with paper-based medical records (troglodytes!). The stereotype about doctors' handwriting applies to veterinarians, as well, so I have to read faxed copies of chicken scratch several times a week. My cryptographic skills are well-honed as a result.

Zundian said...

Honestly, with the near infinite amount of nearly illegible fonts used on the web, I'd think it would almost be easier to read cursive than many websites.

tornwordo said...

Good riddance say I. I have always printed faster than I handwrote. Why did we have to learn two ways of writing in the first place? Redundant. The fact that this generation doesn't know what a walkman is is on a par with them not knowing cursive. IMHO of course.

GayProf said...

Mel: As an undergraduate, I worked as a secretary in a hospital. I can be quite adept at using contextual logic to give meaning to doctors' otherwise nonsensical swirls of ink.

Zundian2: I would have thought something similar, but it really stumped them.

Torn: You're probably right -- Just like we don't need manual transmissions anymore either. Still...

Historiann said...

GayProf, thanks for this post. Children I know in Colorado at at least one school are learning cursive in third grade, but I don't know about the rest of the 8 to 9 y.o. set.

I've been reading exclusively printed material in the archive this time, but I've been surrounded by people flipping through handwritten 17th-19th century letters and documents. It will be a strange world indeed when we need to teach grad students paleography in order to read documents written in English that are not even 100 or 200 years old!

Leslie M-B said...

Thanks for this important post. I've noticed a slight uptick in printed midterms in my survey courses, but the undergrads at my institution skew older than the average American undergrad, so I haven't yet felt the full force of the demise of cursive.

My handwriting shifted dramatically in seventh grade, when I asked for the usual electives (art, home ec, woodshop, metalshop) and ended up with calligraphy--seriously, old school calligraphy, with inkwells and big slanted wooden desks and tall stools. The next semester I put in for art, home ec, woodshop, metalshop, and I was one of a lucky six students to get to take calligraphy for an entire year. The result? I can read just about any script, my handwriting has a bit more joie de vivre, and I get complimented on my chalkboard/whiteboard handwriting regularly by folks much older than myself. Screw the 19th- and 20th-century U.S.--I should have been a medievalist!

thefrogprincess said...

What bothers me isn't the fact that people aren't writing in strict cursive. I can't think of the last time I wrote in full cursive. But learning cursive was crucial to writing faster and more legibly: i.e. Kate's method of a mix of print and cursive, which isn't feasible without actually learning how to join up letters. I'm under 30 (for a few more months, at least) and I find the loss of decent handwriting to be very worrisome.

KateGladstone said...

Actually, "learning how to join up letters" existed several centuries before the creation of a special style for joining them _all_ up.

Semi-joined writing was the style of the very first handwriting books ever published in our alphabet, almost 500 years ago in Renaissance Italy. Completely joined styles were created later, during the Baroque era and thereafter. Since those styles came long after semi-joined writing, they weren't — and aren't — a prerequisite for semi-joined styles. Deciding that 100% joining "must" have been around before less frequent joining is a little like deciding that electric guitars "must" have been around before traditional instruments.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing stuff - in the UK we call it joined-up writing and it used to be taught at about 8-9 as I recall. It differs a fair bit too. The Capital J here look more like the typed version, and in particular the G. I am stunned to see your graphic of cursive standards. I met Gina Schock of The Go-Go's last year, and wondered why she looked at me oddly after I commented on her "stylised G", which looks just like the one in your standard, a sort-of 4-looped square creation which looks somewhat like Henry VIII's R-cipher on his official documents... you live and learn.

kittens not kids said...

I admire artistic/beautiful/regular penmanship, and have never been able to do such lovely writing myself; I have some weird variant of cursive/semi-printing (which seems to be not as weird as I thought, judging by these comments). I do a bit of archival research professionally, and I love seeing the handwriting of the 19th century educated class; I love seeing my great-grandfather's equally neat and pretty handwriting on old documents. I'm willing to believe there's no real substantive link between being able to write cursive and READ cursive, but I do worry that reading handwriting isn't being taught at all. And frankly, most of written history happened in some kind of script, not block letters or typeface. As a literature instructor, though, I routinely come across students who think that anything written in "old english" (i.e., 19th century or earlier, printed in a novel) is mostly incomprehensible. I wonder if that played a part in your students' inability to read the handwritten documents???

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Actual quote from teacher on my essay;

"This page looks as if a drunken, ink drinking spider had stumbled it's way home from the pub across your page".

Cursive is probably going to become a specialist skill, but then, in this household, one of us can read old English and the other can't. The one who can read old English has possibly the most useless handwriting in the world (First letter + straight line) He was the one who was "taught" cursive.

ps. a more useful skill is reading the damn letters they ask you to read to prove you are not a robot. I mostly can't.