in Culture, Language, Pedagogy

Writing, thinking, and you

I guess by ‘you’ above I mean ‘me.’

I was reading Umberto Eco’s recent opinion piece (in which he responded to a recent report about handwriting among Italian kids), which seems destined to raise cries of ‘curmudgeon!’ or nods of approval from grannies all around, but I think he was on to something:

The three-page article pointed out that writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think. Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so they could think with greater calm.

If you’re like me you become frustrated sometimes trying to teach the grammar of a formal, written, foreign language to students whose English teachers bloat the curriculum with mythology and modern fiction while ignoring the elements of language.* Every year students struggle to tell me what the past tense is of the English verb ‘to have,’ routinely confusing past tense and passive (‘have been?’). They have no idea what a clause is, let alone a subordinate clause, but have some vague recollection of diagramming a sentence in middle school. It’s little wonder then that so many students struggle to understand Latin grammar, no matter how well illustrated or carefully explained: concepts are often best understood by analogy, but in this case there is none. If students don’t understand what a participle does in English, they can’t learn very well the myriad forms and functions of participles in Latin.

So what does this have to do with Umberto Eco and handwriting?

After learning about the reign of Romulus and the bizarre incident of the Sabine Women, which tends to raise laughter or disbelief, we watched a video from PBS on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan today. I wanted to see how my students think and I wanted to gauge their command of formal English grammar, so I assigned a one page written response paper with a series of prompts, but I requested that they write by hand. As Eco said, writing in this way forces you to think a bit more than you might. There’s little room for revision, it’s unlikely that students would use a dictionary or have someone revise a paper so small and seemingly inconsequential, and there’s no chance MS Word’s detestable grammar checker would butcher their prose.

No, the product here is a snapshot of students’ minds through the filter of their command of formal language. I can learn more from this exercise than I could having them compose a dozen sentences in Latin, answer a hundred comprehension questions, or what have you. I can take these snapshots throughout the year and get a clearer picture of how well they communicate in their own formal language, and how critically they think about the material presented. I think this is a far more valuable assessment than testing a paradigm and a few random, memorized facts.

Most importantly, I get a better idea of where each student’s roadblocks are. Perhaps this boy still struggles with tense and voice in English, or that girl makes no distinction between direct and reported speech.

In Eco’s defense, let me offer proof that he is not a curmudgeon (as a bonus it includes some classics content):

Although the cellphone has taught the younger generation to write “Where R U?” instead of “Where are you?”, let us not forget that our forefathers would have been shocked to see that we write “show” instead of “shew” or “enough” instead of “enow”. Medieval theologians wrote “respondeo dicendum quod”, which would have made Cicero recoil in horror.

*Now there are those who would call me a curmudgeon, but with all our various dialects, we would soon be lost without a common, formal, written language, whose grammar and vocabulary, though markedly different from what each of us uses on a daily basis, allow us to understand and to be understood without regard to class, border, or time. No one, nowhere, at no time speaks with this common, formal, written language, but it is an established and effective medium for clear thought. Dialect (and things like generational slang) burden communication outside the group. So three cheers for prescriptive grammar and standardized language in its proper place. It won’t keep me from telling my wife that ‘ahminna godida stoor’ even when ‘I am going to go to the store,’ or ‘ged’ when I would write ‘go ahead.’ But I wouldn’t and shouldn’t write those things for an audience unless I’m writing fiction or teaching the Philadelphia dialect.

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  1. Hi Dennis, what a great exercise – I bet your students found it a curious experience as well! The courses I teach are English writing courses (not Latin, alas), and over the years I’ve been tracking the errors my students make so that I can focus my attention on developing materials to help them with those specific problems. I’ve been teaching the same courses for about seven years now, and during that time I’ve noticed a precipitous decline in spelling and punctuation skills. Even very good students are struggling with the basics of English writing mechanics. This past summer I built a wiki to try to help my students with use of apostrophe and commas, recognizing homonyms and other confusing word pairs, etc. I built it with proverbs, just to console myself that I was teaching some kind of meaningful content while dispensing advice about writing mechanics. I really worry that unless we ALL start helping our students with writing, the art of writing is going to turn into a specialized skill like car mechanics or plumbing – we will be able to speak, but we’ll have to go to a “mechanic” when we need anything written.
    The materials are here if they would be of any use to you, too. I made some little interactive question-and-answer scripts that run on every page to try to make it more engaging and instructive! :-)

  2. I’ve found myself wanting to write on paper for this reason, compounded with the fact of uncomfortable erasure. When composing on the computer, I always imagine I’ll go back and review what I’ve written, but that happens much more rarely than it should, and we I do review the work, I have a harder time catching mistakes than when I’m typing from my hand-written writing.

    Also, I don’t believe I ever actually understood grammar–English or otherwise–until I applied myself to Greek and Latin.


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