End of Term

June 17, 2006

End of Term is a Time of joy and sadness. Joy at putting the hard work behind us, at being “done”. There are few times in life when it appears that closure comes so comprehensively. Just for that, exams are a good thing.

Sadness permeates too – not regret that an interesting teaching term is done, but that it highlights the frailty of the human condition. Exams, and other end of term stresses, accentuate other problems we all inevitably have in our lives, and for students, this can become a cause of immense anguish. Absences rise, sickness prevails, and as teachers, we stand witness to the compounding effect of young people’s problems. Year after year it happens, and it never gets easier or simpler.

Over time, we see the same issues arise, and also learn to recognize it in ourselves, and thus reconnect to our times as students. Only it seems as if today, our students deal somewhat better with their problems than we did; they just are more mature and worldly-wise. Yet, this does not change how hard it is to relive those experiences through a younger person’s experience. I wish we did not have to. It also really amplifies our own problems, however different or varied they may be.

In the end, sadness lingers on after the joy has been spent. Grades are turned in, its all squared away, yet one remembers that bumps in life are exactly that – ups and downs. Just when the road seems smooth, there is a bump, with the high and the low – we cannot have one without the other. End of term is like a bump, quite inevitable. The finality we seek at the end of a school term or year is hard to attain. The end of term is just not terminal.

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Is the Pen mightier than the Keyboard?

June 10, 2006

Resistance to change is universal. Stability is an integral part of self. Yet adaptability is just as important in a changing world. Hence, a flexible and evolving self has become the personal paradigm of the modern world. Nothing epitomizes the conflict between the old and the new as much as the question: Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

It is often said that thinking flows as the ink from the tip of a pen. That summarizes the need to get the mind going by first getting the hands moving. To me, this is a beautiful example of the essential interaction between mind and body. Just think of it – all beautiful writing requires this intrinsic dual role play of physical expression and intellectual thought. Therefore, why should things be any different if we replace the pen with a keyboard. One might argue that a keyboard is even better, as now both hands are brought into play, and it is just that – being totally engaged in good writing is as much play as it can be!

Viewed as such, there should be little difficulty in moving from the pen to the keyboard. Yet, many people are unable to make the switch easily. They still need to use a pen to think at their best. What changes? Indeed, there are many changes. One, the physical orientation of entry and display is disconnected. When you write on paper, both input and display are on the same paper, in the horizontal orientation. Not so with the computer. Here entry is horizontal, but display is vertical. Does this require extra processing by our brains? It might just be, though there is no scientific evidence of it that I know of, and I expect this has still to be investigated. Yet, over time, the extra processing does add up, and clever people might find that handwriting is just superior for the thought process, as it wastes fewer brain cycles.

Two, unstructured thought seems better done on paper than on the computer. When writing on paper, the ability to access any coordinate of the writing space with equal ease makes for much more flexible expression, and frees the mind up for creative processing. When working with a screen, most word processing programs, or even presentation programs impose a linear layout on our expression, which implicitly impacts the freedom of thought. Yes, there are desktop publishing programs that are certainly geared to full range layout, and which certainly help. And with the new tablet computers, this might be changing. However, the tablet is as much an admission of the intellectual advantage of thought through the pen than via a keyboard.

Three, the variety of writing instruments is far greater with pens than with keyboards. Even with keyboards, I find that I write better with some than with others. Do you also find that when word processing, certain fonts are easier to think with than others? In my case, I certainly find that the helvetica or arial font leads to better thought than times roman in flat files (its the opposite for me when reading Latex output). I also find that editors that automatically word wrap leave me more time to think than editors that do not. There is something about an untidy paragraph that needs constant re-alignment that throws off my writing. With paper and pen, I get a range of colours, tips, nibs, tactile feels, and other choices that are conducive to the specific writing I am doing. For instance, when doing a referee report, I like to use green highlighter and green ink. When proof reading my papers I like using red ink. When handwriting I use a fountain pen with black ink. And when deriving mathematics, or taking class notes, I always use a mechanical pencil. Mostly the 0.7mm tips suit me best, but then, every now and then I just have to use a 0.5mm lead. And when writing checks and signing documents, I use a black ball point. Call me crazy, but I never get such well defined choices with a keyboard. Mostly its a font choice, and I seem to have become used to Apple, Dell QK and Logitech keyboards. And oh yes, I also vary the location of writing from desk to couch/bed. On desks, I use a desktop (surprise) and on the couch, a laptop. I need both – dont know what I would do without either. Thats the big problem with working on campus – no couch – hopefully my new office will accommodate one.

There is something interesting I have learned by watching people write and keyboard. I use the Latex typesetting program, and prefer to have the input screen on the left, and the preview screen on the right. I have noticed that people who prefer this tend to also write with the paper to their right. When they read and type, they prefer the document being read to be on their left. If the writing is being done on the left side of the keyboard, and the reading from pages on the right of the keyboard, people tend to have the input screen on their right, and the output screen on their left. This left-right to input-output orientation seems to be an interesting regularity based on (very) casual empiricism, and maybe there is some deep left brain right brain logic for it.

The growth of voice recognition programs raises an interesting issue – do we write better when dictating or when we use our hands. I have tried voice to text programs, and my writing comes out very different. I guess its worse. I do not speak in the way I want to write, And I feel it reads worse too. There is something about using my hands to compose what I write that is critical. It cannot be substituted for by my voice.

Despite some of the advantages of the pen, the keyboard is gaining rapidly in relieving the pen of its role. Certainly, for a trained typist, it is much faster to type than to write. The keyboard is also economical because many times we use the keyboard to write as well as to visit web sites while doing research on what we are writing about. This makes the efficiency of keyboarding higher than writing, because the keyboard becomes both, the medium of research and the producer of output.

There are folks I know that have made the shift from pen to keyboard and find it hard now to write well unless seated in front of the keyboard and screen. I am still half way. In fact, I like to handwrite the basic structure before sitting down at the keyboard. What I do find is that I end up with something completely different than what was planned. For example, I wrote the notes on a small piece of paper for this blog post last night, and then used these notes to flesh out my typing today. Since I do this often, it has now stopped surprising me as to how different the typed version is from the original handwritten ideas. There is clearly a different thought process that results when one uses a keyboard than a pen.

All said and done, expressing one’s writing in pen seems more fulfilling to people who write regularly. Yet, the new generation is leaving this behind, and becoming the keyboard crew. The tablet computer is an interesting innovation that will likely span those offered. Maybe voice programs will become very accurate and hence useful, making the traditional approach a thing of the past. The time has come now when we need to look for a completely different way to solve the problem of expressing ourselves in a total mind-body way. Till then, the pen and keyboard will joust.