Sunday, 8 March 2009

I am going to propose what could appear to some to be a controversial and reactionary thesis - that students should once again produce handwritten essays.

Wouldn’t this be an improvement on the current situation, where ‘word processed’ assignments are typically ‘produced’ without much thought and effort?

Might handwritten essays prove to be more thoughtful and, in the end, engender a new appreciation of the craft of essay writing?

Although perhaps rather quaint on first inspection this idea does have a very respectable philosophical pedigree. Wittgenstein, for one, suggested that he thought with his pen. Can we really suggest that we think with our PCs? Doesn’t the computer engender an instrumental attitude towards thought and language, where the truth and significance of ideas are subordinated to their overall efficiency and effectiveness?

Heidegger, too, would have been very suspicious of the idea that words should be ‘processed’. For him, those who claim that word processing makes writing more efficient are simply wrongheaded. Heidegger would have objected that any attempt to sever writing from the hand will also sever writing from thought.

I think that Heidegger was onto something here. With the word processor thought is mechanically forced and it ceases to dialectically flow.

Thinking is tied to the body in ways that we no longer appreciate.

Neil Turnbull


  1. I do think this is a good idea--in theory, since it is doubtless the case that word processing effectively erases the creative process in favour of a polished, finished product. Few (I would suggest!) would argue with this.

    However, university structures (the requirement for students to submit word processed pieces) and, dare I say it, our increasing reliance on, and acceptance of, technologies for all forms of communication means that this would unfortunately be very difficult to implement in practice.

    Also, both writing by hand and, indeed,the art of handwriting are skills which are on the wane whether we like it or not. I understand that schools no longer see the need to impose handwriting style as they once did in recognition of the fact that pupils merely need to be prepared to write clearly, for the practical purposes of, say, list writing and occasional exams. The notion of handwriting as an art seems to be outmoded indeed.

    Is it up to us as philosophers to challenge this seemingly relentless process, or be swept away on the tide of conformity? I, for one, must admit that the convenience of word processing, editing tools etc means that I would be loathe to return to the 'old ways'. That said, such a lapse into conformity is something that richly deserves to be questioned rather than accepted.

    Finally, could Philosophy as a subject effectively hold out against the rest of the university's policies on submission guidelines? Do offical structures even exist for questioning these guidelines? I wonder...

    Ruth Griffin

  2. I don't think that this issue is about 'conformity' or good handwriting practice!

    - And what does 'conformity' mean these days, when everyone is trying so very hard 'to be a liberal individual' and not to conform? -

    It is more about trying to find a mode of 'authentic thinking' that challenges the modes of 'information processing' currently at large in contemporary culture.

    The PC, as an information processing device, supports the same mode of thinking in us. And when meaning is reduced to information, thinking is reduced to calcuation and manipulation.

    One handwritten piece a year would suffice! I am not asking for the earth!

    Neil Turnbull

  3. Personally I lament the loss of the 'beauty' of handweiting. So much can be garnered from the way somebody wrote 100 years ago. Where they went to school, who was their intructor etc. Now word processing is so ubiquitous that everybody writes with the same messy scrawl that could really be interpreted as anything (myself included). If individuals were encouraged to hand write their essays they might put great care into the style, spelling would improve as a matter of course (without spellcheck) and grammar itself would improve. Not to mention that every single student would become an artist, each with his/her own style of beautiful caligraphy. this, i think is the issue, machines create laziness in form and content.

  4. I agree that it is hardly asking for the moon on a stick to require one written assignment per year, and that this may well have the aforementioned benefits. I also agree that machines can be problematic tools (which tend to promote conformity to particular styles and content, in my opinion!)

    What I was musing on, however, were the practicalities of carrying out such a venture within the current university structures.

    For me, the issue is about conformity because if a student were to attempt to challenge the system in the spirit of liberal individualism by submitting a handwritten assignment, then under the current system it would have to be resubmitted in word processed form regardless of its quality (ie the student would be forced, rightly or wrongly, to conform to the rules imposed from above).

    Philosophy as a subject could, and perhaps should, challenge this state of affairs, but I suspect that university structures wouldn't, by their very nature, make this easy.

    Isn't it the case that the notion of the liberal individual is largely illusory? We may believe we are all liberal individuals now. But perhaps our choices, within the current 'it's all about me/you' culture are really reduced to little more than our choice of font/mobile phone operator/newspaper/lifestyle/whatever. Do we really have access to mechanisms which challenge the system in any real sense, so that our voice as a liberal individual may be heard and heeded? I personally doubt that media technologies asking us 'what we think' are a genuine force of democratisation.

    We may all be individuals now, but whether this genuinely empowers us to challenge the status quo is another matter...


  5. Biological distinctiveness may be our given birthright, but individuality is a lie or at best a very hard to obtain state. We are constricted at every turn. You may choose (within given guidelines) how you dressed this morning but someone else more often than not made and designed all your clothes and I doubt they are one offs unless you are very fortunate.
    Should we return to the days of all students laboring with a fountain pen (in the right hand please, don’t go being sinister)? Should smudged, badly worded, miss spelled, grammatically incorrect essays be given the same mark at one that is perfect? Perhaps the word processor has taken a little of the soul from the task of essay production but bones and flesh of the essay are still there and in a corporeal world surely these are what count?

  6. Why would anyone think that writing with a pen is a form of 'labour'?

    Would you say that about, say, a paint brush? Does an artist labour with his/her paintbrush? Or is this something that allows him/her to be creative?

    The point I am trying to make is that machines often turn craft into labour. We need to find ways, again, to achieve a more creativity in our essay writing.

    The question is whether PCs enhance or diminish the creative process.

    Neil Turnbull