The Curse of Not Teaching Cursive

Some school boards won’t teach cursive writing anymore. The impact of this decision bears heavily on the ability to write and read handwritten documents, with possible implications for historical interpretation.

By Serena Ypelaar

In our increasingly digital age, what will become of handwriting?

I’ve always found it fascinating to see people’s handwriting, and I associate the way they write with their personality, almost. At least, it’s a part of their identity. Being able to recognize people’s handwriting is also useful when you’re trying to tell who wrote something (it’s always interesting that Santa seems to have the same penmanship as Mum or Dad…).

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Photo: Michal Jarmoluk

Yet, with the domination of smartphones and laptops, we don’t have to hand-write notes or messages as often as before. As a lover of the written word, and a typography nerd, I feel a bit wistful reflecting on the disappearance of paper and pen.

One thing that strikes me is the choice of some school boards to cease teaching cursive writing to children. It’s something that’s happened in my own province of Ontario – kids are no longer going to learn cursive penmanship, meaning that they will have to resort to printing, in the case that they do write.

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A letter handwritten by Walt Whitman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I myself write an approximation between printing and cursive writing, wherein I drag my pen to connect the letters (it’s much easier and quicker than printing, but it’s not by-the-book cursive). However, I know how to read cursive writing – but will the people of the future?

Take this letter from American poet Walt Whitman, for instance. We can probably decipher the text, as Whitman’s scrawl is fairly legible compared to countless other cursive letters, but we’ve also learned in school how to recognize the script (the letter “Q” in cursive always looked like a silly “2”, or a swan, but we get taught to recognize it – something our children won’t receive).

It’s difficult to say whether people who haven’t been taught cursive writing will be able to read letters like these. Whitman’s hand is one thing, but how about those who wrote much more sloppily in the past, or with a much steeper slant?

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“Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid”, Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not too long ago, I was at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, where I completed my master’s degree. I spent a few days reading through the correspondence of General James Wolfe, the leader of the victorious British forces at the fabled Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1763) which defined the colonial future of Quebec and ultimately Canada. Wolfe’s writing was quite elegant, but I often had trouble deciphering some of his words (I’d like to illustrate my point, but the original copies of his letters are protected in the library, so I don’t have photographs).

Letters like these, and early manuscripts, are extremely important documents to study, both in a literary and historical sense. In the humanities, we’re working with written documents all the time, and being able to read as much as we can is a necessity. Even just for leisure, being able to write and read cursive is a special and worthwhile skill. It’ll be interesting to see how reading evolves in the future when most of the documents we produce will be typed.

It’s a little ironic: I almost wish I could have handwritten this post for effect.

“I could do that. Even a BABY could do that!”

Seeing art that you feel you could have made can be a disorienting experience. The way art is critically acclaimed can be unfathomable to those of us who aren’t well-versed in art valuation and criticism.

By Serena Ypelaar

What makes art art?

Who gets to decide?

I’m sure many of us have experienced that moment in an art gallery when we are so bemused by a piece of art that we react as skeptically as the title of this blog post: I could do that. To which our inner voice might reply: But you didn’t. 

How much of art’s success lies in talent? Timing? Luck?

Does public appreciation elevate our work, or diminish it? Some artists would kill to be recognized in prominent art galleries worldwide, while others might be more commercially motivated and hope to make a living on their art. Still others might be repulsed by the notion that everyday people might appreciate their creations en masse outside of a venerated space like an art gallery.

When I was in London this past May, I had the privilege of seeing a play about one such artist, Mark Rothko.

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Alfred Molina, left, and Alfred Enoch, right, star in Red at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. Photo: Evening Standard

The play, Red, stars Alfred Molina (of Indiana Jones and Spiderman 2 fame, among more “artistic” films) and Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films; How to Get Away with Murder). Molina plays Rothko, the American painter who was known for his large red abstract paintings. Enoch plays his assistant, Ken, who, in contrast to his counterpart, praises the emergence of pop art from artists such as Andy Warhol.

Rothko rose to prominence during the abstract expressionism movement in the 1950s and 60s. Set in the twilight of this era, Red follows Rothko’s internal conflict after agreeing to paint commissioned works to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant, placing his art in a setting that he ultimately feels is pretentious and inappropriate. He must therefore choose between commercial success and his artistic ideals, causing tension in his understanding of his identity as an artist.

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Molina as Rothko and Enoch as Ken. Photo: The Telegraph

The 90-minute play raises an excellent dialogue on what constitutes art, what kind of recognition art merits, and who gets to truly define how we consume art.

This is where Alfie Enoch’s character shines – he starts as an unassuming apprentice, but by the middle of the play he’s firing off rebuttals against Rothko’s resistance to mainstream consumption of art.

Regardless of what you think about where art belongs, Red emphasizes the disparity from person to person. I might think that the pinnacle of artistic success is landing a coveted place in the halls of the Louvre, for instance, but someone else might think it a truer success to see their work all over town, enjoyed by more people and more frequently (like Banksy, for instance). There are unspoken hierarchies and beliefs about modern street art vs. the timelessness of being validated by art institutions.

And what makes art good, anyway? We’ve tossed around this idea for decades; centuries, even. Molina and Enoch discuss the issue too, but their characters’ disagreements in the play prove to us that the answer is difficult: I love classical art, particularly realism and/or landscapes, others love abstract art, others may not “get” contemporary art or consider it art at all, and so on.

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Outside Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

In an effort to avert conflict, I’m tempted to say we should all just get along and like what we like, but it’s not as simple as that. The fact is that artworks’ supposed value (both from an artistic and commercial standpoint) has a very real bearing on institutions’ collections policies. Galleries have to decide what’s worth collecting, and curators base their acquisitions on research, market value, context, and more.

I don’t really specialize in that area of museum work, but I do know from my degree that an institution’s collections, and its acquisition decisions, deliberately reflect its collecting practice. Consider that the next time you think, I could do this – but don’t stop thinking that. The decision is yours to make. Whether or not you consider a work a piece of “art”, the fact that you decided by looking at the art and using your own critical perception is comfort enough for me.

The Backbone of a Good Biopic

Biopics offer a glimpse into another person’s life, but if presented poorly, a bad biopic can undermine the truth. So what makes a compelling biopic, then? 

By Serena Ypelaar

Biopics: we see them every year, covering all kinds of notable individuals and their lives. Put simply, a biopic is a film that interprets a person’s life and condenses it into a consumable feature-length story.

The biopic is a tool of remembrance which, done ethically, has the power to record and preserve the achievements of someone’s life.

We’ll be talking about biopics a lot in this column, but what makes a biopic successful? Here are three key elements creative teams highlight to execute a good biopic:

1. Uniqueness/Promising Talent/Struggle

The subject of the biopic usually has some kind of trait, talent, or struggle that sets them apart from others. This can come in the form of disability, a gripping dream or obsession, or a special talent. In The King’s Speech (2010), one of my favourite biopics, Bertie (the future King George VI of England and father of Queen Elizabeth II, played by Colin Firth) has a speech impediment, true to life. His speech impediment causes tension when he’s unexpectedly thrust into the role of monarch and must give speeches to the nation during World War II.

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Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech (2010) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Hidden Figures (2016), we follow Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black female mathematicians working at NASA during the Cold War. They were trying to use their talents to serve a society that was prejudiced against them – not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, The Imitation Game (2014), who was discriminated against for his homosexuality. By emphasizing their perseverance, filmmakers tell the story of marginalized individuals in a compelling light.

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Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P.  Henson as Katherine Johnson, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures (2016). Photo: Flickr

2. Emotional Outlook/Relationship with Society 

Perhaps the most central element of a biopic is raw emotion. Loss, heartbreak, poverty, abuse, and any kind of hardship can shape the subject’s emotional state and outlook on life, and these feelings resonate with us in some way or another, if depicted in a way that’s just abstract enough for us to relate to, but still precise in the plot of the movie (and in the greater scheme of the subject’s life).

People’s experiences influence the way in which they view and interact with the world, and we can connect to those feelings. A good biopic will manage to encapsulate a real-life public figure’s inner emotions accurately, while sometimes bending the narrative to foster emotional reactions.

3. Overcoming (or Failing to Overcome) Adversity or Discrimination

In The Theory of Everything (2014) there’s a scene in which physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) slowly stands up, despite being paralyzed in a wheelchair. It’s a scene of his own wishful imagining, of course, but the image is so powerful that it moved me to tears.

When biopics stress the subject’s determination to overcome adversity or pain, they hit upon a commonality between all people: we all struggle with something in life. The intensity of struggle in biopics can often test limits, in a way that’s so dramatic that we are compelled to react and feel.

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Mohandas Gandhi, played by Ben Kingsley, in the multiple-Oscar-winning film Gandhi (1982). Photo: The Telegraph

Similarly, in Gandhi (1982), Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley, oddly) leads India’s non-violent independence movement after being thrown off a whites-only train car in South Africa in 1893, though he had a first-class ticket. The fight against injustice can carry a biopic and ensure it resonates with human empathy.

How can biopics improve? 

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, British computer scientist and logician who analyzed the Enigma code during World War II, in The Imitation Game (2014). Photo: Flickr

There are a lot of biopics about white men. If we had even more breadth and diversity in commemorating individuals, we could connect to even more people on a more representative level, and celebrate achievements that may be overlooked due to classism, racism, sexism, or inequality in general.

With the emotional threads I’ve outlined above, many biopics admittedly follow a structural formula – but for a good reason. It helps introduce us to people as human beings and forge connections with them on a personal level.

What do you mean, you’ve never judged a book by its cover?

The act of reading books in public is a performative art – we like to convey a certain image with what we’re reading. How we interpret people’s character by what we see them reading is another concern entirely.

By Serena Ypelaar

Let’s not lie to ourselves: we’ve all judged books by their covers.

Something about the imagery that first greets us is so immediately evocative that we’re instantly gripped by emotion.

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So many covers to judge. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Lurid, bright colours and strong graphics? I feel a bit cornered.

Clean minimalism? My mind feels vulnerable, laid bare but curious.

Elegant script on a damask background? I’m intrigued.

We all have our biases when taking in cover art, because stylistically, we know what we do and don’t like. In fact, when I first received Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the age of six, I initially consigned it to the shelf because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged by the cover. We all know how that ended: I was wrong. It turned out to be my favourite book in the world.

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Rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

There’s another dimension to the idea of judging a book by its cover that goes beyond the self, though. Perhaps it’s because reading is such an intimate pastime, but combine it with our inherent fear of judgement and you have an interesting social phenomenon on your hands.

I’m talking, of course, about reading on public transit.

As a commuter who routinely takes the subway downtown, I cover a lot of ground in reading. I’ve always got a book on me, and I’ve stubbornly rebelled against the e-book ever since its introduction. The result is that other people always see what I’m reading.

As one of my two majors, English lit will always own my mind and heart, so I’m naturally obsessed with 1) what others on the subway are reading and 2) what I must look like reading my books.

Maybe it’s self-absorbed and no one else ever does this, but I often wonder what image I convey based on what I’m reading. Every time I reread Harry Potter, I wonder, “what if someone thinks I’m reading this for the first time ever?” When I read YA (young adult) romances, I don’t tend to flaunt them. And when I read Keats, Austen, Shakespeare, or any classic lit, I hold my book proudly, feeling learned but also slightly disgusted with my self-consciousness.

Reading on the subway is a performative art; whether we register it or not, we’re displaying our interests for bored strangers to observe in an almost Sherlockian fashion. If a grungy hipster were to enter the train reading Nicholas Sparks, for instance, I’d admittedly be taken aback. It makes us somewhat uncomfortable to face up to our inward assumptions about people, which are often based solely on how they look and dress; but their choices in literature are arguably more revealing. We can deduce what kind of stories move them, what fascinates them, or how they react to books in question.

Sure, I bet there are people who can’t be bothered with random people’s opinions of them – but there’s got to be a reason I’ve seen so many middle-aged women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on a Kindle, right? My point is, e-readers can sometimes be a strategic choice, providing anonymity in the case of a controversial read.

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“What are you going to read today, Napoleon?” “Whatever I feel like I wanna read. Gosh!”

As much as we can dwell in others’ scrutiny, though, I believe we can use reading on the subway as an act of empowerment: read whatever we feel like reading, spectators be damned. After all, just because someone’s reading a book, doesn’t mean they approve of it. Regardless of what we’re reading, why we’re reading it, and what we think of it, no one will ever know anything about our experience beyond the book cover and our outward expressions. Those are all superficial assessments – so we might as well just enjoy our commute.