The Rare Book and Manuscript Library recently hosted 13 children ages 8 to 11 for a daylong camp that ended with a cursing contest. These were Elizabethan curses ("Thou craven, milk-livered flax-wench" was the winner), judged primarily on penmanship. It was part of Valerie Hotchkiss' campaign to save the art of cursive writing and, equally important, the ability to read cursive writing.
Filling a need Valerie Hotchkiss, the director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, decided to host a cursive camp after noticing that young library patrons have trouble reading cursive. She is assisting Aescton Slowikowski, age 8.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Hotchkiss, who is the Andrew S.G. Turyn Endowed Professor and the director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, came up with the idea for the camp when she noticed that an increasing number of young people are plagued with an inability to read cursive handwriting. Most public schools have dropped cursive from the curriculum, and it is not part of the new Common Core standards, Hotchkiss said. She has even been summoned to the Reading Room by an undergraduate student who needed help deciphering a manuscript, only to find that the allegedly impenetrable text was the impeccably legible handwriting of Victorian art critic John Ruskin.
In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hotchkiss explained the ramifications of young scholars unable to read cursive.
During cursive camp, campers ages 8-11 learned cursive using the Zaner-Bloser method.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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"Unfortunately, this means that they will be locked out of doing research with literary papers and archival collections. Indeed, they will not even be able to read their grandmother's diary or their parents' love letters," she wrote. "When the ability to read cursive is lost, our connections to history - and even to our own past - are lost."
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses manuscripts and letters by such notable authors as Gwendolyn Brooks, Darwin, Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Proust, Ruskin, Sandburg, Trollope, Twain and H.G. Wells - much of it in cursive handwriting. Even writers who typed their manuscripts often made revisions with ink pens, and it's these revisions that reveal an author's creative process, of swapping one word for another.
"It's a window on the world of any period between the Renaissance and right now," Hotchkiss said.
These writers' penmanship varies widely, from Ruskin's "very neat, clear hand" to Wells' "tiny, nice, readable after a while cursive," to Sandburg's "very backhanded cursive" and Proust, whom Hotchkiss describes as a sort of Picasso of penmanship. The best way to unlock the code to reading such a vast variety, she reasoned, was to teach kids to write themselves.
"I don't see how you can read cursive if you can't write it," she said.
She advertised the camp through posters and fliers, and with enrollment limited to 13, it filled up fast. "We opened registration on a Wednesday at noon, and the class was filled by 10 a.m. on Thursday," she said.
The campers learned about writing implements, starting with rocks and progressing through ballpoint pens, gel ink and digital-tablet styluses. Janet LeRoy, a local elementary teacher, gave them Zaner-Bloser method exercises, which they practiced on whiteboards, lined paper, blackboards and with sidewalk chalk on the Quad. The class concluded with a "cursed cursive" contest, during which each camper composed a curse using only two adjectives and a noun, all originated by Shakespeare.
"It wound up in a tie," Hotchkiss said, "and two kids each got a beautiful German fountain pen and some cartridges."
She has since received several handwritten thank-you notes from campers, as well as requests to host more camps. She is even considering starting a course for Illinois college students.