The Professor, Penmanship, and Online Education

This summer I am teaching online, in part because many students prefer to take classes online. Summer is the time for mischief, experimentation and creation—there is just something about that added sunlight, all sorts of plants I know not the names of in bloom everywhere—it just makes you want to try something new.

In my online freshman composition class I have taken to using a blue felt tip pen, a uniball VISION, fine, 0.7 MM, if you are a pen aficionado, and I know many of us are very particular about our pens, even in this technological age where we spend most of our day hammering or tapping on the keyboard.

I have in my online composition courses over the years typed students responses, a kind of letter, in which I have summarized for them the strengths and areas to be improved on their papers, along with typing comments such as, “Look at Paragraph One, Sentence One,” quoting the relevant part and asking them why this is a comma splice and how we can fix it.

My reason for this approach has been that I want students to interact with their paper, go back into it, and I certainly am not a fan of either receiving or giving someone an electronic document that is color-coded so that even someone who is not colorblind has a hard time grasping what is meant to be communicated.

Sometimes I also find the “newer” version that makes editing remarks in bubbles to be annoying, somehow not being able to totally train myself to hit accept changes or wondering will the other person understand what I comment on, or why I don’t accept the change, and let me highlight something in neon green for emphasis. In short, that kind of communication leaves much to be desired on essays in the online world.

My handwriting is terrible—I marvel at how terrible it is. I was born with terrible handwriting. My mother would not post anything I wrote on the refrigerator for fear that people coming over would worry. (No, Mom, this is not true, so if you are reading this, let’s not spend an hour talking about this. You were a good mother.)

But there is something to be said for handwriting, as we exercise with our hand and pen our mind on a solid surface, the ink being absorbed by the paper.

Again, I do not write comments for my students in red. I like the color blue, and many of my comments are positive. I have a dialogue with my students as I take a walk through their paper.

I have been unable to replicate this kind of experience using electronic instruments, even that stylus that was supposedly going to catch on. I don’t even think chimps in Jane Goodall documentaries would want to use one of those when a twig is so much more organic, better.

This summer I am writing on my online students papers, having printed them out, and I have that wonderful feeling of flow as I communicate with them and then get some exercise in by walking to the kitchen table where the wood and light are good for taking photos with my smart phone.

Next step is to simply attach the images to the student’s email and hit send.

So far the students seem to enjoy receiving my handwritten feedback via the jpegs. I think it gives them the opportunity to zoom in and focus on certain parts before they open the next page of their assignment. It is a kind of benign, forced interaction.

And best of all, they get to see my horrible handwriting in a land of perfect graphics, and it feels good to exercise the hand the way it has not been used in a while and the way we sadly don’t use it very often anymore. And I think my handwriting is getting better. I don’t want students to email me back and tell me they can’t read what I wrote. Because after five minutes, I often can’t either. So broad brush strokes with a fine 0.7mm blue pen it is for me when teaching in the online classroom.

Dr. Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.