January 19, 2005

Penmanship and nonverbatim notes.

As I finish up grading exams, which are nearly all handwritten -- almost no one uses a typewriter and computers aren't permitted for exams here -- my heart lifts to see this article about the newly rekindled interest in teaching good handwriting! For years, everyone has just assumed that handwriting had gone into hopeless decline, that the hands of our youths had adapted to keyboards and would scarcely know how to hold a pen soon enough. What is the cause of this glorious, historic turnaround?
NOTHING, though, supplied such a jolt to the handwriting cause as the advent of the new Scholastic Aptitude Test. In the version being introduced this March, each student must write a 25-minute essay. And that essay, unlike the answers to the SAT's multiple-choice questions, will be read and rated by two genuine human beings, as Nan Barchowsky was quick to remind a class at Harford Day School.

"Do you know anything about the SAT's?" she asked, and the hands of these ambitious children predictably rose. "The people who'll grade those essays won't have any time to decipher illegibility. Scary thought, isn't it?" She paused. "And you're probably going to be taking notes for the rest of your lives. I don't know anybody who works on a computer and doesn't also have a pad nearby."
Ms. Barchowsky could add that they might want to go to law school some day. And then there's our new era of hotly contested post-election disputes:
As The Journal News in Westchester County recently reported, a judge disqualified ballots in a tightly contested State Senate race because he could not read the signatures.
Here's something else in the penmanship article that caught my eye:
In high school and college, any student without a 24/7 laptop cannot hope to keep accurate notes on a lecture course. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting specialist based in Albany, estimates that while a student needs to jot down 100 legible words a minute to follow a typical lecture, someone using print can manage only 30. "That's fine for class," she said, "if the class is first grade."
If my students are taking notes at that rate in my 3 credit law school courses, that means their set of notes for the course would be 220,000 words long. That's about 500 pages! The handwritten notes would be 66,000 or about 150 pages (in typescript). Isn't there some advantage to summarizing in your head as you write as opposed to speedtyping close to verbatim? The student with more voluminous notes has a big task ahead compressing those notes into a form that can be studied. The student who had to think to compress while writing in class has saved all that time and, if he is doing a good job of taking concise notes, will have absorbed the material better while writing, because you need to understand things at the time in order to phrase the notes concisely. Verbatim notetakers can get by thinking I'll figure out what this means later, but later, you've got those horrendously voluminous notes to deal with. And the notes actually won't be verbatim, just close to verbatim, so they may be quite puzzling. You may read it later and say to yourself: I know the teacher said that or approximately that, but what did it mean? Sometimes a student will come to my office and read something from his or her notes and ask me what it means, and it's too late to make sense of it. Being able to take down words nearly verbatim may give you a comfortable feeling that you've got everything there and you'll be able to get to it later. But will you?

UPDATE: Washington University School of Law lawprof Samuel Bagenstos writes:
Although I can't say I always agree with your comments, I am a frequent reader of your blog. I have to say that today I read something with which I completely agree. Why are so many students wedded to verbatim note-taking? I want my classes to be a conversation, where we work our way through difficult issues (and work our way through how to *think* about difficult issues). I don't want my classes to be a monologue, where I talk and they dutifully write down my words. (The only exception: At the beginning of each class I usually spend about five minutes lecturing in a way that recapitulates and synthesizes the previous day's discussion.) I want my students to think critically about the assigned reading and what I and their classmates say about it. They can't do that when they're trying desperately to get down every word I say. Anyway, virtually nobody I know talks in such a way that every word is precisely chosen and essential to the point. Among law profs who come to my mind, the only person who talks that way is Erwin Chemerinsky. When a student writes down my words verbatim, the words take on a kind of oracular quality in the student's mind. The student often spends undue time puzzling through hermeneutic questions about what that text means, when really there was nothing special about the particular words I was using. (You can see, I've had the same students-coming-to-my-office experience as you.)

1 comment:

KateGladstone said...

Actually, the NEW YORK TIMES misquoted me: I gave those numbers as *letters* per minute, not *words* per minute. Thirty letters per minute comes to about five words a minute (fine for first grade) - 100 letters per minute equals about 20 words a minute (okay for taking college notes). Yes, after the article appeared I let the TIMES know they'd misquoted me. No, as far as I can discover they never printed a correction.