“The Blank Page, the Open Mind and the Free Hand”: Forming New Perspectives Through the Art of Handwriting

January 23, 2022

To engage students in course materials, educators often turn to cutting-edge tools. As technology progresses, new methods offer an increasingly wide array of options for professors. Forms of communication and inquiry have indeed transformed, but what if a form that dates back thousands of years can provide students with new insights? What if practices from the past can aid us in understanding the future?

In a departure from the digital, students in the Big Ideas course “Thinking Through Art and Design @ Berkeley: Creativity and Practice” wrote their assignments in journals donated by Moleskine. Asking students to write assignments on pen and paper is a rarity. Most students haven’t completed a writing assignment for class without typing since elementary school. So why did they do so in this course?

An image of students' Moleskine journals with handwritten notes

Photo credit: Moleskine

Professor Greg Niemeyer (Professor of Media Innovation, Toban Fellow, Director of the Art Practice Graduate Program, and data artist) has highlighted the significance of the practice of writing by hand by having students envision how handwriting will be utilized in the future. Course assignments were handwritten as students used their Moleskine journals to create new ways of imagining the future. Students were given an assignment to create a language that would be used in the future along with an accompanying method of translation. The handwritten notes they created highlighted the evolution of language to fit societal needs and also reflected the anticipated concerns of a distant time. Tasked with identifying how new forms of language would emerge to ease communication in the future, students sketched creatively and imagined ways to detail the direction of this speculative society.

Handwriting these assignments was a critical choice to feature the distinct qualities of this form of expression. Writing by hand provides context to the reader by giving insight into the writer’s emotions and vital details that are beyond the content of the text itself. The unique quality of handwriting is detailed and designed by Professor Niemeyer andLourdes Mucino Garciain this video essay As they explain, typing creates a uniformity that is certainly useful for mass production, but it fails to provide even a subtle understanding of the writer’s state of mind. In his essay titled, “The Way We Write” Professor Niemeyer asserts, “Handwriting is a mirror. Looking at the letters as we form them, we can glean if we are tired, angry, calm, honest, fake, meek, bold, bored, scared, or inspired.” The power of writing by hand emphasizes the humanity in this expression in the imperfect characters that are never penned quite the same. Using their Moleskine sketchbooks, students were able to recognize the nuances in their perceptions of handwritten notes. Through being tasked to construct a glimpse into the future of handwriting by developing different communication styles, students were able to reflect on how even the slightest variation can transform meaning or aid understanding.

Photo of a student writing in their journal

Photo credit: Moleskine

Students’ words highlight the importance of reconceptualizing communication when thinking about the future. The course was a vehicle for challenging preconceived notions about handwriting, but also methods of exchange and connection more broadly. Student Jenny Nguyen (Undeclared, ’25) notes how the course allowed reflection that impacts not only perceptions of communication, but with larger ideologies:

As I worked on this project, I realized our hopes for the future of communication lay in our values: how we understand the world, and how we want to be understood. Through this, I grew to understand not only my desire to interact with my environment beyond face value, but also my hope to communicate with others in a way where I won’t be taken at face value.

Students envisioned new forms of engaging with others in conceptualizing the needs of our future society. Their journals represented their hopes and aspirations for tomorrow starting with improved means of communication. The practice of handwriting was not only rewarding as a method of teaching inside the classroom, but as a powerful method of communication, learning, and creativity. Big ideas, indeed!

This article was written by Danae Hart, ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow in the Arts & Humanities Dean's Office.