Phenomenology of the Hand

By Bauerlein, Mark | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, February 2018 | Go to article overview

Phenomenology of the Hand


Bauerlein, Mark, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


If you teach high school or college students, or have kids who are passing through those places, and if your duties include grading papers, or you watch your kids struggle with writing assignments, I have a piece of advice. Tell them to try composing by hand, with pen and paper, not on the keyboard.

I know, I know-this runs against most of what you and your students and children have been told. Every ad for the newest iPhone reinforces the supremacy of screens and obsolescence of paper. Many schools have gone all-digital all the time, such as Flint Hill in Oakton, Virginia, an Apple Distinguished School that gives every student an iPad or MacBook Air at an early age and whose dean of faculty told the Washington Post in 2012, "Tech is like oxygen. It's all around us, so why wouldn't we try to get our children started early?"

That headlong approach has been going on for thirty years now. Computers arrived when I was in graduate school in the late 1980s. Reactions ranged from practical interest ("this will shorten my time to completion") to revolutionary fervor ("this is going to be as big as Gutenberg"). Office mates heavy into rhetoric and theory matched computers to cutting-edge cultural studies (a leading book back then was Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology). They warned us not to fall behind. A buddy of mine dropped books altogether and tried to get a computer to write verse-good stuff, not doggerel. You didn't have to be so intellectual about it, either. If you had two sections of freshman composition and papers to grade each week, not to mention a three-hundred-page dissertation to write, you looked for any magic that would reduce the comma splices and do away with carbon paper.

That was the first promise. Revision and proofreading would take a great leap forward. Students would fix punctuation with a couple of strokes. No more grabbing the white-out to paint over a mistake, blowing it dry, relining the page in the typewriter, and hitting the proper keys. With new software programs, students could click on a word they had typed on the screen and a list of synonyms would appear from which they could find a sharper term. Spell-check would highlight every error. With corrections now simple and quick, students would turn in cleaner drafts and lighten a teacher's workload. ("A" papers take the least time to grade.)

So where are we now? Worse off than we were before. Students write faster with keyboard and mouse, but would anybody say that student writing has improved in the last three decades? Certainly the test scores say no. The SAT added a writing component in 2005, and scores have gone down every year except two of them, when they were flat. The ACT college readiness scores in English have dropped six points in the last five years (67 percent of test takers reaching readiness in 2012, 61 percent in 2016). With all the tools available to amend grammar and usage and spelling, twenty-first-century students aren't gaining. They are writing more words than ever before, yes, because of social media, but more hasn't meant better.

That's because they're doing more with the wrong tool. The keyboard isn't an advance on the pen. It's a step sideways, if not backward.

Think about the process. To produce a letter on the screen requires nothing more than a tap with a finger. You don't make the letter; the computer does. You can't work on the words without going through the circuitry first. You have visual contact, but not direct tactile contact. To write another letter, you tap somewhere else with a different finger. In a physical sense, it's not really writing, a tracing out of letters to make words. It's tapping.

With a pen or pencil, you make the whole letter, the mind directing the hand to push, curl, pull, and lift in a set pattern. On the keyboard, each letter is nearly indistinguishable. With the pen, every letter is distinct. Making a k isn't like making an 0. …

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