My son is teaching in Japan and just sent me a packet of letters from an after-school English Club he is running. He asked me to connect these pen pal letters with my students and maybe we might get a more consistent correspondence going. When the students opened the letters we were all amazed at how beautiful their handwriting was, careful and fluid.
I made some snide remark about how I wish they had as legible, readable, and aesthetically pleasing handwriting as these students halfway across the world who were just learning English. And most of my students agreed. Wholeheartedly.
When I was in school I had terrible handwriting, terrible cursive that is. In fact, in Middle School I was put into a calligraphy class to see if that might help my sloppy cursive. Since then, I have chosen to print (all caps) and can actually do it much more quickly than cursive. My father used to print all the time too and I’m sure there was a piece of me that wanted to emulate his style. He was a sign painter/ artist so had the chops to model the best. My students (and colleagues) always tell me how much they appreciate the clarity of my writing. Sometimes, a student will emulate it, like JD who wrote his letter to Japan in all caps.
As the students responded to the letters from Japan, I watched most of them write very slowly, unhurriedly, really taking their time. They knew that these Japanese students wouldn’t be able to decipher their normal “scribble”. I think they also felt a bit competitive. After all, most of my students are native English speakers; it is their language; they should know how to write it clearly and not be outdone by those who are just beginning to learn it. BD who has always written to the right side of his paper, leaving wide, empty left hand margins, threw his first letter away when he noticed the aesthetic disparity between his letter and his pen pal’s. I asked FD why he couldn’t write that clearly when he writes assignments for me. He responded that it took “too much time”. “Maybe you should take that extra time,” I whispered to him. Some students were even asking each other about spelling and punctuation. I saw TR actually walk to the dictionary to look up a word.
The letters from the students in Japan were simple— identifying their favorite foods, hobbies, birthdays, and gender. The letters from my students were not much more complicated because they knew their pen pals did not understand English very well. But there was a small catharsis (is there such a thing as a small catharsis?), a kind of new self-consciousness of how appearance (of one’s handwriting) can shape first impressions and meaning. I am not saying that the aesthetics of the letters my students wrote will impress our new global partners. These are hard habits to break.
But maybe this self-consciousness will be a quiet touchstone for all of them, that it is not just the content of the work, but also its visual presentation which sends very significant (and if we are still to embrace Marshall McClune, even more important) messages.
And this was a message to me as well, to raise the bar around legibility and clarity, not just of content (where most of my energy goes), but also for visual grace and appeal. Even if we all have to slow down to achieve it.