Sunday, June 03, 2007

Writing without Technology

In one of my columns last month, about how modern technology has made it so much easier to figure out who that actor is or who sang that familiar song, I ended by lamenting that I didn’t have access to the same technology when I was writing my high school research paper.

It was my senior English class. I think now they refer to English classes as language arts, but they still involve a lot of reading and a lot of writing.

That’s the part I hated most about English class, the reading. I didn’t mind the writing so much, but I hated reading. That’s probably why I flunked freshman English and had to re-take it. I had the grade; I just failed to do a required book report. Looking back, it was a pretty bad trade-off, despite the fact that I got an A on the repeat.

Anyway, back to senior English. My teacher was Mrs. Houston. She was stern and proper. And the last thing she wanted anyone to think of her as was colloquial. Her syntax was impeccable, as was her vocabulary.

I actually liked the lady. She influenced me more than I probably gave her credit for at the time, especially the time she flunked me on a test that I actually got an A on if she had graded it properly. Although I had all the answers correct, I didn’t follow the instructions to the letter, so she counted all the matching questions wrong.

Senior English is the class in which all the students must write a, gulp, major research paper. This was no mere book report. It didn’t involve the reading of one single novel or short story. No, I had to actually do research by reading several sources and writing down all I had learned on note cards before compiling them into a coherent paper of at least 1,200 words.

The good news was that I got to pick my topic. I didn’t have to write about one of those stupid classic novels like Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn. I got to write about what I liked. And back then, as now, what I liked was technology.

In those days technology was a fledgling industry. It was in the days before electronic calculators, and long before desktop computers. It was a time when I was amazed at the electric business machines in the typing lab. One could even do complicated division problems, and it only took a few seconds to divide one number by another.

Anyway, I didn’t take business class; I took typing. I learned on a manual typewriter. I hated it, but I’m glad I took the class. It makes writing these columns go much faster, except for the moments when my brain can’t keep up with my fingers.

And it made writing that research paper much easier, since Mrs. Houston required all final drafts to be typed.

The technology that was in vogue at that time was manned space exploration. It had only been a year or so since the first manned moon landing, and I was still awestruck over the event. So my research paper turned out to be a fun read. I don’t mind reading if the subject is interesting and relevant to me.

So I read lots of magazine articles and books on manned space flight and did my research paper on the history of the Apollo space program to date. It seemed much easier than I though it would be. The note cards piled up and the order they were to go in seemed intuitive. Since I was writing a historical account, chronological order seemed appropriate.

So I got out that old Remington typewriter that I had found in the throw-away bin at the old Edinburgh Daily Courier office and I wrote my 1,200 words, and maybe a few extra just for insurance.

It was a beautiful, marvelous work, at least in my own mind. I read it over and over, making sure there were no stupid errors in syntax or spelling. Obviously, my old Remington didn’t have spell checking.

I got a C from Mrs. Houston. I had expected an A, or at least a B+. But I got a C. When I asked her why, she replied that it was hard for her to read because the letters were blurry and that I should be happy I got a C. She told me next time to clean the keys.


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