Handwriting and Mathematics

I grade stacks of homework exercises nearly all handwritten mostly in pencil.  So the disappearance of handwriting skills as lamented by modern authors is alarming.  I would argue that handwriting, cursive handwriting, is essential to a quality college education at this point in time.  For instance until everyone has good fast typing skills and a tablet, the in-class essay or math test will be written by hand and in cursive fashion since printing is too slow.

In math classes decent handwriting is important.  The act of taking notes is a learning technique and notes in a math class need to be taken by hand,  firstly because typing and formatting algebraic expressions takes too long and secondly because handwriting on blank paper allows for freedom of spatial composition.  Students can instantly change to a two column format, use arrows, sketch graphs without the extra keystrokes that a word processor would require.  The same applies to doing homework exercises.

As the above referenced article says, handwriting is personal.  The connection between a person and their handwritten work is close and at the same time idiosyncratic.   The spatial organization of a math solution says something about the person’s thinking processes. Handwriting is personal in another way.  My wife and I were at a restaurant and I was writing in a diary that we take for such occasions   The waitress commented about how writing with a good pen was such a pleasure and I replied that I like the feel of pen on paper.  She asserted, “The micro-sensation of writing is one of life’s small pleasures.”  Exactly.

In another context I happened to be carrying a four foot slide rule across campus when a colleague stopped me and struck up a conversation.  I recalled to him that my college career was spent calculating with a slide rule.  I got really good at powers of ten and estimation and was somehow closer to my calculations  because I had to physically move the slider, could see a visual representation of the calculation and had to participate somewhat in the calculation.  Now my students just push buttons on their TI-83’s which responds with a cold, flat result, right or wrong, wrong by one percent or one hundred percent.  We have given up a measure of physical quality and pleasure for digital efficiency.  I am lucky to have lived in both worlds.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
This entry was posted in Classroom Happenings, Math and Me, Pedagogy, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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