Friday, August 19, 2011

Surging Forward into the Past

   Having spent a good deal of time rescanning old photos and reorganising my photographic collection of medieval manuscripts, I have begun the process of updating some of the more manky old photos in the script examples section of Medieval Writing, as well as reformatting, updating links and all that jazz. This will take some time, so be patient and we might get there in time for the next great leap in the digital revolution.
   However, there are a few points for users to note. If the photographs are larger and less compressed, they will take longer to load. If you are still running on a windup clockwork modem, please be patient. I cannot turn scans from black and white photographs in old books into living high definition technicolor. I cannot make the script in the photographs more legible than it is in the original manuscript. I cannot remove difficulties like flaws in the vellum, stains on the page, or writing visible from the other side of the page, nor should I try. These are the difficulties you encounter in the real live world of manuscripts.
   I am not going to rescan the sets of alphabet letters. I had a number of discussions with colleagues right at the beginning of the project about the use of alphabet sets. Personally I think people just carry them around and stick them under their pillow rather than use them effectively if they are available. That is why they are all on rollovers so you can't just print them as sets, not, as one correspondent suggested, that I think you might steal them. Hey, you can have them. They're yours. I actually think it works better to hunt for the letters in context, but I included the separate letters so as not to cause palpitations among the troops. But I'm not doing them again.
   Somewhere along the way I will get tired of all this reinventing, and sneak in some new stuff from the increasing piles around me. Meanwhile, have fun with it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Literacy through Mouse or Quill?

  A few weeks ago there was a tiny flutter in the media as a "research" project was published that purported to show that children gain better written literacy when they learn to write with a pen, having to form the letters themselves, than when they type on a computer. The one little trouble with this piece of research was that it was backed by a company that makes pens. OK, calm down pen guys. Even those of us who do most of our composing on a keyboard still have plenty of use for pens. And yes, handwriting can be a very satisfying art. Platoons of calligraphers cannot be wrong.
   It is kind of intriguing to note that pens of the very sort I was obliged to write with in my school days are being sold today as calligraphy pens, not fountain pens as they were called in my youth. I think that name came from the way ink would cascade in fountains over your fingers, or your books and your lunch when they leaked in your bag. Very satisfying to write with, but I wonder if they have fixed that little anomaly.

   Way back in the 1980s, when typing text was just about all you could do on a computer, school teachers were going through a bit of a crisis in the teaching of literacy. They claimed that children got all traumatised if their written work was corrected, so they didn't. There is a generation out there that can barely spell or punctuate. It seemed impossible to convince most teachers to let the kids use these new computer thingies to type their compositions, because they could correct them and end up with clean copy. One teacher of my acquaintance who did use a computer this way claimed that the kids got huge satisfaction out of it, but in those olden days the one class computer had to be severely rationed among the class.
   Now that computers can do practically anything and kids wander round with thumb drives on tapes around their necks and every classroom has a smart board, the one thing they do not seem to do is use them for straightforward compositional writing. My granddaughter is a terrible speller, and she was amazed to discover that she could produce a perfect assignment by correcting the spelling on the screen. They can google, they can email, they can rip MP3s, they can edit photos, they can even produce beautifully formatted text work in amazing fonts with clip art, but they don't use the technology simply to help them spell or punctuate.
   In the middle ages they recognised that there was a difference between reading and writing literacy. There were people who could read but not write, like Charlemagne and many women. There were scribes who could painstakingly copy out letters and words without much comprehension. That is why they made so many mistakes.
   Today we demand high levels of competency at both aspects of literacy, so it would make sense to make use of all the tools at our disposal: pens for learning letter forms and wiring our brains for understanding them; computers for developing fluency, correcting mistakes and encouraging original composition. It couldn't possibly be the case that both sides of the debate could be right, could it?