Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In Praise Of Pencils

Walking the corridors of my University, one occasionally comes across students reading their textbooks, while waiting for class. One of the things that I have noticed is how often students are reading texts that are massively highlighted. I have never quite come to grips with the phenomenon of highlighter pens. Why do they get used with such glee?

When I was a child, I was taught that it was some kind of venal sin to write in a book. A little later in life, I realised that this advice about writing in books, was not entirely correct. It is OK to write in a book provided that one owns it. It is certainly a sin to write in someone elses book, or a library book. I also came to believe that one should only ever write in a book in pencil, not pen. However, highlighter pens now seem to be the weapon of choice for students. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this is the case.

When reading a book with a pencil, one can make short cryptic notes in the margins. This makes it possible to rapidly move through the text at a later point, in order to find a crucial passage. This can be done by just perusing one's marginalia. Also, with a pencil, it is possible to mark up a text in a manner that indicates levels of importance of a passage. Crucial passages can be underlined. In fact, one can underline heavily, lightly, or with a broken line, thereby providing a metric of importance. Less important passages can be indicated in a similar manner, by putting a line beside the texts.

Many of the books I have owned for many years are now quite heavily annotated. This is especially the case with canonical philosophical texts, that get frequently used in teaching and research. My annotations, in addition to the table of context and the index, make it pretty easy to find the parts of a text that one needs, both easily and rapidly. This can be extremely handy when writing, or counselling a student on a paper.

There is a sense in which these texts and my notes on them are part of my intellectual capital. Students who attack their texts with highlighter pens, rather than pencils, are denied the possibility of generating this capital over time. Although there are many colors of markers available, who can remember why a particular passage struck one as being worthy of yellow, or blue, rather than orange, many years later? Not only that, highlighted book look ugly! My cryptic pencil notes may not look perfect, but they have a certain familiarity that is comforting in a manner that a highlighted page surely can never achieve.

There is even a way that a pencil can be used on library books, without distressing later readers. The invention of the ubiquitous 'yellow sticky' was the key innovation that made this possible. When reading a borrowed book, one can place a yellow sticky on the page by a key passage and annotate away. These also form handy tabs that can be used later. When it is time to return the book, if one systematically removes the yellow stickys, making a note on them which page they were affixed to, and by which paragraph, it becomes possible to reconstruct one's notes at a later time. I store the stacks of yellow things in envelopes, when not in use.

These then are the reasons that I think that pencils should be praised. They also provide compelling reasons why they are to be preferred over those ugly dayglow highlighters. The pencil is one of the most useful scholarly tools, in my experience. Indeed, pencils have even been the subject of scholarship themselves! Henry Petroski has written a History of the design of the pencil. Thus, I am in favour of pencils.

The CP


Blogger Jill said...

Sticky notes (as well as the little colored flags also manufactured by 3M) have adhesive that is detrimental to the long-term life of the paper in a printed volume. That's the downside of using them in a library book as many librarians will be happy to tell you.

10:27 AM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Thanks for the heads up. Damn. Does anyone know of a good alternative methodology to achieve the same goal?

The CP

7:32 PM  
Blogger Tenured Radical said...

Didn't know that about sticky notes. But what bothers me about highlighters is seeing the student has highlighted 1/3 - 1/2 the page. How can that possibly help a person study? And it slows the reading down. I just draw a pencil line down the margin of the text, but never mark more than one thing a page, because otherwise you just have to re-read the book to make sense of it.

CP, I was also raised in the tradition that writing in books was a sin.

9:03 PM  

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