Friday, April 25, 2008

Are quill pens next?

There's something strangely retro about these news items:

From the Pew Charitable Trust's report "Writing, Technology, and Teens"(.pdf file):
Nearly three-quarters of teens (72%) who write for personal reasons say they usually write longhand, similar to the 65% of teens who usually write by hand for school. However, teens are much more likely to write only by hand when doing non-school writing. Nearly one third of teens (32%) never use a computer at all when writing for their own personal enjoyment; by contrast, just 9% do their school writing by hand only (19).

This is fascinating. For years now, we've been told by the pundits and educrats that the "digital natives" wouldn't know a pen if it bit them and that writing by hand was so 1970s. And yet the pen hasn't lost its charms, it seems, for writing that you really want or need to do--writing song lyrics, maybe, or recording a breakup in language that's too personal for MySpace.

And then there's this:

Some teens noted the benefits of learning a quick shorthand for taking notes in school...
I think [instant and text messaging abbreviating] helps sometimes because like when we’re taking notes we have to hurry up and take them and knowing the text language it helps to abbreviate. ... faster. – 9/10th Grade Girl, Midwestern City (46).

I have an inexplicable interest in shorthand, maybe because of its associations with journalism (do journalists still learn shorthand?) and Victorian authors, so of course this stood out for me. If you look at old magazines, you'll see ads for a word-based rather than symbol-based shorthand that read something like this: "F u cn rd ths u hv a futr n jrnlsm." What is this but an early form of text-message language, an abbreviation system like the one that 9/10th Grade Girl is using? As long as it's not used for writing-to-be-turned-in, isn't it possible that this may help with taking notes?

And finally, the laptop-in-class argument erupted again in the comments to an Inside Higher Ed column called "Hey, You! Pay Attention." In what could be seen as another retro step, the University of Chicago has apparently blocked Internet access in its law school, and the commenters rounded up the usual arguments:
  1. Pro: Students from this-here new multitasking generation learn better if they multitask.
  2. Pro: How is surfing the web different from doodling?
  3. Pro: If I want to waste time on the web instead of listening to the professor, it's his fault for being boring.
  4. Con: It's disrespectful and distracting when everyone is paying attention to screens instead of participating in class.

The thing about the web is that it's always going to be too enticing if you have access to it in a class. You know how they say that people tend to eat more when they're in an office where people keep jars of candy or boxes of cookies out on the desks? The internet is a jar of candy, and nobody's going to pass out from the lack of it for an hour or two when learning is supposed to be going on. There are times when it's useful in a class, but as a regular thing it's sure to promote cookie-eating (no pun intended) when abstaining would be better for everyone.

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