REMEMBER when misbehavior in class meant writing 100 times on the blackboard or on a sheet of paper a promise never to repeat the offense?
I wonder if it was the shame of being disgraced or the disgust arising from repeatedly confronting the mistake that made this punishment effective.
I know that I never missed doing my homework again AND never forgot to write all my assignments in a notebook to help me remember. The latter accounted for the former omission.
This grade school lesson was the rare time when writing created such self-loathing. It took some time for me to finish the task. I did not dare allow my penmanship to lapse into illegibility. I believed my teacher was capable of making me repeat the sentences, as well as adding one more phrase or sentence citing crappy handwriting to add to the sins I had sworn to expunge.
At the time, I just wanted to write the 100th period so I could dash off to the carport and escape having to explain to my father why I was delayed. In retrospect, the act of writing and rewriting felt like condensing the maddening drip of water that creates the millennia of damage left behind by erosion.
This childhood brush with crime and punishment resurrects my intention to require my students to keep a journal when I return to teaching.
All of us must have experienced keeping a journal: jotting down in a notebook that is read later by the student and the teacher. In the humanities, the exercise is effective for drawing out the reflections of students, specially those who are cowed by more articulate classmates or large classes.
Keeping a notebook has other uses. Taking down notes is a valuable skill for those aspiring to be journalists. Listening, summarizing and isolating key points are professional “tricks” that can be honed with the humble notebook.
And then there’s doodling or sketching, which has saved the sanity of those awaiting the enlightenment of intellectual breakthroughs or class dismissal.
But it is the act of composing in a notebook that I would like to bring back to undergraduate classrooms. Initially, my students found the exercise “cute,” meaning they were only humoring me because the exercise could obviously be done more efficiently with a computer.
Yet, when applied to different classes and schools (University of the Philippines Cebu and St. Theresa’s College), just 15 minutes of freewriting produced not just paragraphs but pages, even from perennial protesters who said they “did not know what to write”.
While much of the material produced from freewriting is raw and needs rewriting, the exercise is useful. Teachers glimpse each student’s voice, style and quirks—their writing signature. Students realize that writing for 15 minutes is more productive than “waiting for inspiration” or “getting in the mood” to write.
Best of all, 15 minutes alone with an ordinary notebook unplugs us from the Internet. It’s a break to make us recognize in ourselves all the classic symptoms of digital dependence: “copy and paste” derivativeness or criminal lack of creativity and originality, obsession with image and spectacle over text and substance, and truncated attention.
In my experience, the best notebooks are the ones recycled from previous classes. Denuded of used pages and softened from handling or neglect, these notebooks are unassuming and don’t angle for attention. They focus on the elements needed for writing: blank pages and the writer.
Computers and the Internet have been a boon for writers. The Web gives us access to data we never had before. Information comes in many forms, not just words but images, graphics, and video. Going online makes it possible to interact and get instant feedback from strangers.
Yet, this digital cornucopia tends to drown out a crucial conversation: the one we hold inside our heads. Fifteen minutes alone with an old, recycled notebook should make us pay attention to one chat we cannot afford to miss.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Sept. 29, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"