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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog #80 By Hand, By Heart by Guest Blogger Melissa A. Goldthwaite

Blog # 80 By Hand, By Heart by Guest Blogger, Melissa A. Goldthwaite

 

Note:

 

* When I first saw Melissa Goldthwaite's essay last spring in the Kentucky English Bulletin, I knew I wanted to reprint it on my blog. It's about the value of writing handwritten responses to student work--an important human connection that's well worth preserving.

 

MJS


I remember the handwriting of every teacher I've ever loved from elementary school to graduate school: fluid or crabbed, spidery or squiggly, loopy or angular. The slanted script of one middle-aged professor mirrored the way she walked: head pushed forward, bent toward the future. Another teacher's printed scratch was as messy as his hair, as untucked as his shirt. I can picture my teachers' penmanship as easily as I can see their faces. I know the work of their hands by heart.

 

Throughout more than a quarter century of school, I looked forward to the days papers were returned. Unlike many classmates, who flipped to the back page to glance at the grade, I always tucked the paper in a folder, put it in my book bag, and waited until I was in a quiet place, door closed, and I could read and reread each comment. I did the same when letters came in the mail.

 

I remember few of the substantive comments from these teachers. What I remember are the odd terms and the emotional tenor: the single exclamation point when I used "allowed" instead of "aloud"; the words "We'll see" next to a thesis statement (I recall how pleased I was to find in the comments a note about how I'd convinced this initially skeptical reader); the five messy stars and words "This poem is a barn burner!"; the penciled smiley faces and "boy howdy!" The exclamation point next to an error communicated the same message as a cross-out and correction, but it made the point differently. "Boy howdy" and "barn burner" were phrases I'd never heard, but I understood that I'd done something well by the bigger letters, the exclamation points, the stars or smiley faces.

 

Years ago, when I read a Washington Post article claim that "with most states adopting new national standards that don't require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated from most public schools," I didn't think first about the many historical documents—from the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence—written in script. I thought of my teachers—and my students. I thought of various slants and loops and scratches. I thought of cross-outs and white-outs and the grayed litter of erasures. I called to mind the script and print and faces of the people whose writing had shaped my own and those whose writing I seek to shape.

 

I thought of the conversations I have with my students' writing, the interaction in margins. Sometimes, it's painful. There are days when I labor for something positive to say before listing areas that need work. Sometimes, it's exhilarating—stars and wows and yes! Sometimes: tears—tears of exhaustion, tears from being moved by an image so perfect I will remember it for years.

 

Responding to student writing is the most time-consuming part of my job. I spend hours most days bent over my desk or dining room table, or sometimes (back aching from the task) slightly reclining in a zero gravity chair, papers in my lap. Hand writing comments (not to mention the time spent waiting for Wite-Out to dry when I fix my own errors) is anything but efficient.

 

I often listen to my colleagues and other teachers talk about ways of making responding to student writing more efficient. Many digitally record their comments, praising apps such as JING, which allows them to make audio or video comments. They tell me it's a time saver and allows students to hear their tone. It's more personal, they tell me. I believe them, but I have never tried the app. Others praise rubrics: the ease of simple checkmarks in boxes. Other colleagues, who exclusively respond on computers or tablets, tell me how much time they save by cutting and pasting. I believe them.

 

Yet I don't want a cut-and-paste relationship with my students. I want to respond to each person as an individual. Of course, I do sometimes write the same instruction in the margins. Yet in those cases, the writing instructs me. If I write a similar comment eight times in a stack of twenty papers, I am reminded there's something I need to do a better job of teaching.

 

I realize how old fashioned I must sound. But I'm no Luddite. I compose on both laptop and desktop computers, sometimes while walking on a treadmill; I respond to student emails on my iPhone and iPad; I listen to audio books on my phone; I keep both paper and electronic calendars; I return calls on my Apple Watch, always reminded of Maxwell Smart on his shoe phone or the Jetsons on their video phones as I ask Siri to make the call and I speak to the screen on my wrist. I embrace many technologies. But I wish to do so mindfully, to weigh what is gained and what is lost when I choose one technology over another.

 

There are certainly gains to moving to digital comments: online responses can save paper; typed or recorded responses prevent students from having to decipher handwriting; video and audio responses allow students to hear the teacher's tone; some teachers may write more in-depth end comments electronically.

 

My own responses to student work increasingly take a hybrid form. For some students, I write marginal comments in blue ink and a long typed end comment. For others, I type a letter and sign my initials at the end. If cursive is no longer taught in many schools, I imagine there are some students who cannot understand my handwritten comments, so even my handwriting has become hybrid: somewhere between printing and cursive. I'm making the shift, even as I resist it.

 

I still handwrite sympathy cards to students and colleagues who have lost a loved one. I also teach a course in epistolary writing in which students read poems, memoirs, stories, and essays composed as letters. I bring in greeting cards, stationary, and postcards, inviting students to write to their loved ones. On National Writing Day, I asked my creative nonfiction students to write tiny personal essays on postcards and send them out. One student reported, "When my mother got the postcard, she called me in tears." For many students, these handwritten notes are a literacy they've never encountered. I have to teach students where to put the address, where to place the stamp.

 

Recently, I invited one of my former teachers, Bill Roorbach, to do a reading and class visit at Saint Joseph's University, where I teach. He drove eight or nine hours from Maine to Pennsylvania. Before he came to class, we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As I stood over sketchbooks and ephemera in display cases, Bill took photos of art on his phone, texting the pictures to his artist wife, Juliet. He didn't have to sketch what he saw, describe it in words, put it in the mail, wait several days for it to arrive, wait for a response. Juliet responded immediately. Such immediate exchanges made possible by technology can strengthen relationships as much as a letter. Still, I want the letters, handwritten.

 

In the Asian Art gallery, I stared at pages from the Qur'an, an intricate illuminated manuscript. I remembered the day I handed back papers and one young woman held a page of my handwritten comments up to the light. "Wow," she said, "your writing is beautiful. It looks like Arabic script." I wish.

 

In my office, just before he visited my class, Bill picked up an enormous volume—over 1,000 pages—of Sylvia Plath's letters.

 

"There's a Plath exhibit now at the National Portrait Gallery," I said, pulling out my phone. I showed him photos from the exhibit: letters—both handwritten and typed, Plath's typewriter, self portraits she'd painted, her girl scout uniform, typed drafts of poems with handwritten corrections, sketches, and her actual ponytail from when she was an adolescent.

 

He turned the hefty volume over and said, "There won't be books like this published much longer. People don't write letters anymore." He paused and looked up. "Well, you do."

 

I showed him The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, facsimiles of her handwritten poetry. I also have the typed versions; her writing can be hard to decode. The experience of reading Dickinson's handwritten poetry is utterly different from reading the same poems typed. The editor of these volumes, R. W. Franklin explains that Dickinson's "poems resist translation into the conventions of print. Formal features like her unusual punctuation and capitalization, line and stanza divisions, and display of alternate readings are a source of continuing critical concern" (ix). I sit with her poems far longer while trying to decipher her handwriting, noticing how she often didn't fully cross a lowercase "t" or seeing how the marks editors often translate as full, strong dashes are barely larger than periods, tiny marks on the page. I feel the poems differently when I read the facsimile. I'm relieved to have both versions.

 

Bill read to my class that afternoon, using my copy of his memoir Temple Stream. The book was bursting with colorful Post-it flags, marked with my handwritten comments in purple Sharpie. He'd taken a picture of the book earlier. After class, a couple students asked him to sign their books. One student, who'd purchased an electronic copy of the book, asked the author to sign his laptop.

 

At my kitchen table later that day, I asked Bill to sign copies of his latest collection of short stories for my friends, the ones to whom I still write handwritten letters. He drew a big heart on each title page, marked a line through his typed name, signed his name, wrote individual inscriptions—each slightly different. Seeing his handwriting brought me back to the first class I took from him in 1996, a creative nonfiction workshop. I learned to write scenes in that class. I can still see it: "More scene!" a spray of words like graffiti across a brick wall of type.

 

Works Cited

 

Dickinson, Emily. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin vol. 1, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981.

 

Shapiro, T. Rees. "Cursive Handwriting is Disappearing from Public Schools." The Washington Post, April 4, 2013, Washington Post.

 

* This essay was originally published in the Spring, 2018 issue of the Kentucky English Bulletin

 

Melissa A. Goldthwaite, professor of English, teaches rhetorical theory and creative writing (poetry, creative nonfiction, food writing, nature writing) at Saint Joseph's University. Her books include The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, editions five, six, and seven (with Cheryl Glenn); Surveying the Literary Landscapes of Terry Tempest Williams (co-edited with Kate Chandler); The Norton Pocket Book of Writing by Students; The Norton Reader, thirteenth and fourteenth editions (with Peterson, et al.); Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal (co-edited with Jennifer Cognard-Black), The Little Norton Reader: 50 Essays from the First Fifty Years; and Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. Goldthwaite's work has also been published in journals such as College English, Reader, and Writing on the Edge and in numerous books. She earned her MFA in creative writing (1997) and her PhD. (2001) from The Ohio State University.

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