Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Cursive Learning Curve & Future Historians' Dilemma

Booker T. Washington manuscript, LWS Collection.
I taught high school for a couple of years before going into museum work and the number one apprehension my students had about the SAT; the one sentence academic oath that they are required to complete in cursive before commencing the exam! The curse of CURSIVE!

If English Secretary hand eventually fell out of use, it might not come as such a surprise that as the need for technology literacy increases, the instructional time for manual practices like cursive may decrease.  In my own experience working with teachers, I have been informed it’s not only on the decline, in some schools cursive is no longer part of the curriculum.

After recovering from my instinctual cringe, I took some time to ponder my own cursive journey and the implications for such a bold change. Was I shocked simply because I was witnessing a break with tradition? 

I asked myself...

When was the last time I was instructed in/evaluated on my script?  Third grade

How accurate/precise was my cursive? Not very (I kind of just connect regular letters, and heck if I have ever properly written an upper case Q.)

Does my version of cursive speed up my handwriting or note taking ability? Maybe?

Does it seem to help me remember my notes?  Handwriting certainly seems to be connected to my own cognition, but I can’t verify cursive does anything. I usually take notes in a mix of cursive, print, and graphic organizers.

Does my knowledge of cursive letter forms help me decipher others’ handwriting? Yes, but each hand takes time to get used to. As handwriting degrades, script can sometime increase that challenge.

I wasn’t very reassured by my own checkered use of cursive, so I decided to think more about the bigger picture implications for a curriculum that doesn’t include it. 

What are cognitive scientists and learning theorists saying about cursive?

As it turns out, not very much. It seems the emphasis on cursive in a “post-quill-age” is steeped more in folklore and tradition than any hard scientific fact. According to Philip Ball’s recent article “Cursive Handwriting and Other Education Myths,” the case for cursive over manuscript (or non joined letters) is waning and is probably why educators are seeing it missing from the Common Core Standards, among other things.The New York Times education debate has featured a lot in support of handwriting, but not cursive. And Chronicle of Higher Education has delved into this matter on more than one occasion, most recently bidding it adieu.  
So while no conclusive evidence points to cursive being imperative to our cognitive function, save for situational learning applications (as in the case of dyslexia reading strategies)...

What does cutting cursive mean for us? 

Archival Ambassadors alum
Two things:

1. An unprecedented disconnect/communication gap between young people and their living ancestors; a sudden drop in a writing convention that makes it difficult or impossible for young people to read materials created by their (often still living) relatives.

2. A learning curve for students of history and the need for universities and museums to provide paleography training in modern cursive.


Archival Ambassadors alum 
I have been teaching primary source investigation and document based questions for over a decade. Document based questions (DBQs) are analysis driven and so in the classroom setting the skill set being honed in on does not often include the steps of transcription and excerpting. For example, in the AP History context, passages are pre-selected, transcribed, and sometimes given a contextual notation. This preparation removes the student from the necessity of struggling through a handwritten document. Thus when I introduce original, unedited materials, students are sometimes taken aback with the difficulty and general level of patience required to sort through handwriting. 

The lack of exposure certainly slows down the analysis process. As part of our Primary Source Seminar program, we actually let kids “sweat it out” a bit with the original before we share any transcribed materials. It lets them do the work of a true history detective. In recent years though, we've noticed it's requiring more than patience. 

Dr. Leah Grandy wrote an insightful article about the modern historian’s dilemma in her article Skills for Historians of the Future: Palaeography. She encounters more and more college age students unprepared to read or work with fairly modern historical materials, like those written in script, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As you may imagine, this presents a huge issue for libraries, archives, and universities working with younger researchers.

Of course, the ability to read historical manuscripts won't just be the "problem" of the student of history, it will be the concern of all academics. No matter how historical materials are created moving forward, our oldest records will still be revealing their nuances via loops and ligatures, so I leave you with an important question...

Whose responsibility will it be to teach cursive in the future?

Works Consulted
Ball, Philip. “Cursive Handwriting and Other Education Myths.” Nautilus. September 8, 2016.
Baruch Asherso, Suzanne. “The Benefits of Cursive Go Beyond Writing.” NYTimes Debaters. April 30, 2013.
Ferris, Lucy. “Bye-Bye, Cursive.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 23, 2016.
Galdstone, Kate. “Handwriting Matters; Cursive Doesn’t.” NYTimes Debaters. April 30, 2013. ttp://’t
Grandy, Leah. “Skills for Historians of the Future: Palaeography.” Early Canadian History. September 12, 2016.
Graves, Bill. “Most College Students Print as Cursive Writing Starts to Disappear on Oregon Campuses.” The Oregonian. October 27, 2010.
Heitin, Liana. “Why Don’t the Common-Core Standards Include Cursive Writing?” Education Week. PBS. October 17, 2016.
Shapiro, T. Rees. "Cursive Handwriting is Disappearing from Public Schools." Washington Post. April 4, 2013.

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