on looking: retrospective on Darlene

If there’s been one thing during the course of this project that’s opened my eyes more than anything else, it would have to be the interview with my 3rd grade teacher.  To quote myself,

The most important moment came when I asked “How are you supposed to hold a pencil?”  Darlene imnmediately shifted tone, years as an educator showing as she shifted from hostess to teacher.  She got herself a pen and memo pad, and wrote a few small phrases (“the day is long,” etc) while I watched and tried to mimic the grip.  I didn’t get it right at first, but when I did it was like a switch was flipped.  I could see the differences in our grips as plain as day, the fundamental fault in how I hold my pen.  You’re supposed to pinch between thumb and index finger, with the index doing the work.  I held between thumb and middle finger, with the index finger acting as a straightening force.

I wound up staring at my fingers for a while and then at hers and back, and I could tangibly feel which muscles were doing what.  I am much more aware of my own body in this respect, and I can catch myself using the improper grip in practice.  Sometimes I don’t have time and need to let the messy writing go, but I’m actively adjusting myself and am aware of how I should be holding myself. If this doesn’t count as a looking, I don’t know what does.


On Cursive

Cursive (for our purpose, D’Nealian, the standard U.S cursive script) is poorly suited to how we hand-write today.  It’s awful. Besides being designed around the fountain pen and sticking around into the age of the ballpoint, it’s not suitable to write as small as we tend to for one huge primary reason: its legibility goes to near zero the smaller you go.

If you’ve ever gotten professor comments on a paper in highschool or college, you’ve probably run into someone whose comments you couldn’t actually read.  Their handwriting otherwise looks rather nice, so why can’t anyone make out what word is what?

Because after a certain size there’s no room to fully make the motions needed to differentiate cursive letters, eventually turning most of the letters into identical squiggles. Let’s take a look:

D’Nealian standard: “Cursive” by AndrewBuck – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cursive.svg#/media/File:Cursive.svg

The problem characters are e, f, i, j, l, m, n, r, s, u, v, w, and probably to a lesser extent z.  The upper case letters tend to avoid this problem, although S looks nothing like a regular English letterform, and neither does Z or Q. Isolated, the letters aren’t too bad, but these are at full size and generous spacing.  Let’s shrink it to the average script size written in margins and even notebooks.

Isolated, the letters can still maintain their definitions, but already we can see b and l start looking similar, and if anyone misses the bottom loop on f or doesn’t pronounce it it comes along as well. u, v, and w could all be mistaken for one another.  Case in point, a sample:


While this sample was done left handed, I think it can serve as an great example of what I’m on about.  Of particular note is “weather” in the third line.  at this size, w, e, and a all blend to use the same motion and are a little hard to read.   “measurement” is also a particularly egregious offender: e a s u r e all wind up using the same motion but without enough definition due to the small space, and just blend together again.

It’s just not an ideal script for the size demands we put on our handwriting, and certainly not a script that does any favors to people with learning disabilities like dyslexia. Antiquated, unsuitable for the implements of today, and just near illegible after a certain font size, I can’t say we should keep pushing any Cursive derivatives in schools going forward.  There has to be a better way.

Pen wars: A case againt the ballpoint

The ballpoint pen is one of the most influential inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its cheap manufacture and convenience embody the ideals of the industrial revolution: easy to make, standardized, and most importantly cheap. They were originally thought up by a few people for various purposes: A leather-maker needed something to write on leather with.  A journalist wanted ink that dried quickly and wasn’t messy.  Nobody knew how to make them commercially viable until the meteoric rise of industry.

Nobody, however, seemed to have thought their design entirely through as education became standardized and children were taught how to write.  D’Nealian, UK Civil Service, every variant of cursive taught today was derived from a script built upon the fountain pen and how you hold them.  You cannot hold a ballpoint pen the same way as a fountain pen: the nib (tip, what actually transfers ink to pen) doesn’t allow it.

In a ballpoint pen, the ink is spread onto a ball that rolls at the tip of a metal point. It’s a sphere sitting in a cone, but only a small percentage of the surface is usable for writing: The optimal angle from the surface of the paper for the ballpoint to write without scraping the paper or thinning the ink flow is about 60 degrees: A fountain pen rests comfortably at 30 with full ink flow.

Big whoop, right?  Not exactly.  There are a lot of things at play when you write, and the difference between writing with a ballpoint and a fountain physiologically is pretty large. Since you have to hold a ballpoint at a significantly different angle for it to write evenly, you increase the amount of tension involved.  More muscle activity is devoted to getting ink to paper, and less is dedicated to shaping.  Do you remember getting hand cramps on long essays in school?  Doesn’t happen with a fountain pen. The grip’s more relaxed, and the ink flows much easier.

So should we stop the ballpoint pen and try and get everyone to use fountain pens?  Maybe, even probably.  Is it even a possibility?  Goodness, no.  Go take a look at the pen section in your local office supply store. ballpoints

Ballpoints, as far as the eye can see!

A Penman: Post-interview

Wim was enlightening to talk to, and humbling.  I wish I had taken a bit more time to learn pen terminology, but at the same time knowing very little meant that our talk reminded me of how very very large this entire subject really is. Wim fixes and creates pen nibs for fountain pens, which was something I wasn’t even aware was done.  I didn’t even know that they commercially sold abrasives with 10,000 grit rating. I also didn’t know that in the Netherlands they train children to write with fountain pens (When Wim was a child, they started with dip pens and moved to fountain.  Today they start with pencil, then go to fountain.)

The short story of his childhood with pens gave me an insight into some of the deep cultural differences in attitudes towards handwritten language.  The ballpoint pen somewhat symbolizes America’s habit of not thinking its adoption of technology all the way through: cursive and manuscript were designed around the fountain pen, but the ballpoint pen is dominant due to its cheap cost and ease of manufacture. However, the ballpoint can’t be written with the same as a fountain, and is inherently not entirely compatible with cursive.  Wim and I talked about a wide range of subjects, and in general touted the superiority of the fountain pen (you relax more when using it, it doesn’t cramp hands as much if at all, it’s faster once mastered…)

The interview went about as much as expected: he knew more than I, and I was a curious novice into the field he was in for a few decades.  I had trouble keeping up with some of the language, but Wim was eager to explain anything I asked.  I’m going to be looking into the FPN as a resources to learn more of the terminology for my own benefit as I go forth foring my ability to write, and I’ll probably ask Wim for any recommendations.

In terms of interview structure, I could’ve tried to be a little more quiet, but I think it went more ideally as a participant this time around than other interviews. The phone/skype format I think helps keep that kind of structure since it keeps things orally spoken and avoids any environmental distractions, but that element of things was somewhat absent.  Google image search helped with some clarificaitons, and that’s a bit of a help!  Being able to look up any terms on the go was invaluable to help bridge any visual explanations.

Thanks again, Wim, for your time and insight!

Drilling down the sources: a never ending adventure

The scholarly literature on handwriting is an non-unified ocean of thought.  The subject spans several disciplines and each is fairly isolated from the others, making research an exercise in putting together the pieces.  The education field approaches it from developmental milestones, skill sets, and learning theory bases.  The neurologists approach from a brain angle, looking with the scientific method of “what we think happens, what we did, what happened” for what parts of the brain do what to which muscles.  Occupational therapists approach in a similar manner to neurologists, but with more emphasis on practice.  Historians ignore all of the above and are interested in when and how written language spread around.  Each has some passing knowledge of what goes on in the other fields, but for the most part (especially in their citations) they’re self contained.

For the purposes of this post and assignment, we’ll be keeping ourselves within the overall realm of neurology, but specifically neuropsychology.  The procedure for this little post is thus: find a source, read it, find a major citation.  Go find that cited source, and repeat.  You can do this as much as you like, but we’ll be keeping it to two degrees of separation from our original source.

We start with the extra-specifically titled:

Bara, Florence, and Marie-France Morin. 2013. “Does the Handwriting Style Learned in First Grade Determine the Style Used in the Fourth and Fifth Grades and Influence Handwriting Speed and Quality? A Comparison Between French and Quebec Children.” Psychology in the Schools 50 (6): 601–17. doi:10.1002/pits.21691.
In the second opening paragraph, Bara and Marie lay the groundwork for their study by citing Berinnger et. al (2006), and also bringing up five other articles Berninger was involved with and three others some of the “et al” wrote seperately.  Bara and Marie cite the Berninger et al collection as a means of establishing handwriting as “not a purely motor or visual activity” but a ” ‘language by hand’ ”  The next several sections go on to use Grahm et. al’s work as a foundation of theory to ground the study.  This is a case in which a large body of work by a specific team is cited, as opposed to one defining article.  To continue this thread we’ll pick one. Since Berninger et al.’s 2006 article is cited in the introductory paragraph and asserts that handwriting is “language by hand,” it lays the rhetorical groundwork and is crucial to the article, so let’s follow that one.
“Berninger, et. al. “Early Development of Language by Hand: Composing, Reading, Listening, and Speaking Connections; Three Letter-Writing Modes; and Fast Mapping in Spelling.” Developmental Neuropsychology 29 (1): 61–92.”  Again, very specifically titled.  Berninger and company describe a five year study of two age groups (1st until 3rd graders, and 3rd until 7th, with overlap at the 3rd grade) to examine how children develop language-by-hand.  Berninger&co. are different than Bara and Marie in that they cite much of their own work as reference for the theoretical framework in which they’re working in.  Bernnger et al have over twenty years of work in the subject, so this makes a fair bit of sense, especially since they’re pioneering things.
I would argue that Berninger’s entire body of work cited in the 2006 article is the most important, since they’re clearly building upon prior research and experience they’ve done personally to found the study.  And from there, one could imagine them using older work again, a constant cycle of taking what they know, testing it, and refining it with new ventures. The

(1996). “A process approach to writing development across the life span.” informed much of the theory involved in designing the five year study.
So we have a relationship going, particularly within study based fields.  Someone does something and makes definitive findings.  They then continue doing more work, taking along their previous studies as backing and theoretical foundations.  Others then may use this theoretical framework for their own studies and purposes, either to refute or build upon the original study further.  In the study based field it’s a lot like a communal Lego project.  The first person builds something with shape, and then others look at it and then add on more blocks, continually using what came before as foundation for their own work.  This lends credibility to what they’re saying (they’ve done research, they’ve cross referenced, they’re using the right names) as well as gives them knowledge to work upon.  Since these are studies with things to prove, the works they cite are referenced and explained lightly, used more as justification and foundation for the study: the wheels on the bus, essentially. You can keep going with this style of exploration until you reach a Patient Zero, the first person to ever try something in the field, and even then they likely based their work off of something in a tangentially related area.  Thus it never actually ends: the sum total of human knowledge.
Which is neat.

This is just a little note that I’ll be talking with Bill, an Occupational Therapist today about how to help someone regain the ability to write after injuring their primary arm or hand.  This process should be a little different than learning from scratch, but considering the atrophy that happens after six weeks in a cast, it should still be fairly similar.  The main difference between learning from scratch (my dilemma) and rehabilitation is that the muscle memory is still there, the muscles just have to be strengthened back to task.  I’m planning a physiology post after this, so this is going to be a good interview I think.

Interview with a nib-fixer

Monday (4/6) evening I’ll be speaking with Wim from the Netherlands, administrator, bookkeeper, fundraiser, and nib-fixer at the Fountain Pen Network .  If you recall, I linked to the FPN off of my preliminary post off of one of the scripts.  I emailed the admin account to hopefully find anyone who collected pens or simply was enthusiastic about the subject.  Wim pointed me to a few options, such as opening a thread on the forum, or talking to an Arabic calligrapher, but in the process let me know that he repaired pen nibs.  On top of the story of the FPN, a nib repairer cemented my interest.  We’ll be talking over Skype, and while I don’t have a webcam this lets me approach it similarly to a phone interview.  I’ll be talking to him about fountain pens, how he came to be the main administrator at the FPN, how exactly one repairs nibs, and anything else of interest.  I know a little about pens at this point, but someone who actually fixes them when they’re deformed is a rare find and the FPN also has a story I want to know.  Stay tuned!