Bad Handwriting in an Artist’s World by Isaac Weiss

At the time of writing this, my first vaccine appointment is mere hours away. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this moment, slowly waiting for it to arrive. The end of the pandemic is just beyond the horizon for me. I haven’t spent the entire quarantine twiddling my thumbs waiting for the future. I have, however, spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on my past and on my future.

For a long time, I struggled with my handwriting. While other kids’ handwriting got continually better in school, mine quickly stagnated, remaining at the level of a younger child. Nothing I did would help fix this quickly developing problem, regardless of what I tried. Finally, it became clear that I had dysgraphia. My handwriting was never going to be on par with other students. While it has improved over the years (I’ve learned lots of techniques to help make it more legible), it can still be difficult for other people, and sometimes even myself, to be able to read my notes. At the time, no one really knew what I said in my writing; no one could communicate with me effectively outside of verbal conversations, and schoolwork became an intense exercise in what should have otherwise been a mundane activity.

This problem followed me to college. I’d miss points on my homework due to the illegible writing. While I’d go to office hours to fight back for full credit, making my dysgraphic thoughts understandable, it was very clear that my handwriting was going to be a detriment to my immediate success in collegiate mathematics.

Group projects were difficult. I’d need to draw diagrams, write equations, and do mathematics by hand in such a way that I could pass it off to my group partners without needing to always be able to explain every detail. Sometimes, this was easier said than done. Any of my friends will tell you that my ‘a’ and ‘9’ look identical, likewise with my ’s’ and ‘5’.

Normally, I didn’t worry about my handwriting—it was just another obstacle to overcome—but even after just a semester of mathematics, I could see that many difficulties lie ahead. My usual techniques for fixing my shortcomings in translating my dysgraphic thoughts were no longer sufficient to keep me at pace with my classmates.

I attended a college that emphasized writing and research. For the four years to come, I would dive headfirst into paper after paper, culminating in a seventy-page thesis full of original research, supported by a junior-year thesis, consultant work, and sophomore research–all supported by my helpful advisors in the math department. In short, when I chose Wooster, I knew I had a lot of writing ahead of me. It seemed that I was going to quickly run out of options for being able to communicate mathematics the way the other students are able to. Luckily, if you’ve made it through a math education in recent years, you know that all hope is not lost.

In my second semester of college, I took a class that required the use of LaTeX. Finally, a solution to the greatest barrier in my education was right at my fingertips. I could paint the beautiful pictures that mathematics requires, without the brushstrokes becoming unintelligible. The only solution I saw was to write every single homework assignment in LaTeX from here on out.

While that doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking conclusion, I could finally do homework and share the beauty of mathematics without worrying about losing points over my professors’ inability to read past the indiscernible markings on my homework. Nearly all of my peers continued to write their homework on lined paper, regardless of their new ability to type it out. This, once again, differentiated me from others. I didn’t mind; I was content with how things were turning out. It was only once in a while where other students would ask me, “Why are you typing out your homework?” followed nearly immediately by them peering at my notes and remarking, “never mind” or an equally annoying quip.

I’ve tried my best to ignore the strange consternations of those around me who observe my handwriting in passing, but the ability to write and illustrate beautiful mathematical statements is a staple of mathematicians. Would I always be constrained to putting these illustrations on printed-paper? How would I be able to teach mathematics in an effective manner if I am unable to get past my inability to paint the beautiful pictures that were given to me as a student?

I’ll never be able to fully solve the issues with my handwriting. But what is to become of my future as a mathematician should I fail to find a permanent solution to this conundrum? Mathematics is a beautiful discipline that oftentimes relies on illustrations or paragraphs of magnificent equations. Teaching mathematics, likewise, also relies on these same illustrations and equations.

The chalkboard is the mathematician’s preferred canvas. A great instructor can imprint the beautiful world of math onto their students through their simple strokes of chalk. That’s something I’ve seen with my own eyes.

But the chalkboard will never be my canvas. The sooner I accepted this, the more content I was. When I first started as a TA, I found myself constantly rewriting, restructuring, and reviewing everything I would write for my students. Every lesson was filled with my insistence that students interrupt me if they couldn’t read what I had written; every lesson was filled with students interrupting me with questions about whether or not “that’s an ‘o’ or a zero” or if that’s a “five or an ‘s’”.

Dysgraphia is more than just bad handwriting. It’s the way that I move my hands. The way I communicate with others. The way that I think–in my proofs, in my lectures, in my social interactions day-to-day. The fine-motor issues prevent me from ever holding chalk correctly, the words I think fail to come out the way I want them to, and the mathematical beauty I see in my textbooks I struggle to translate–to my students, my professors, sometimes even myself. Dysgraphia is not just bad handwriting; it vastly affects the way I interact with the world every single day.

How can I, as a professor, communicate the beauty of our discipline to students when I struggle to find the words with seasoned mathematical prose? The chalkboard is the mathematician’s preferred canvas. How do I use it as a medium without emphasizing the struggles that I endure? I could stick to the fields of math that limit the need for illustration, putting easily copied numbers and symbols at the forefront. I could avoid the chalkboard in favor of the PowerPoint. But these quick fixes do not erase my dysgraphia. Rather, they continue to push the narrative that issues like mine should inhibit my access to any particular field of mathematics.

Instead, I’ll plant my feet and fight through my students’ annoyance that I can’t draw straight lines or make a simple diagram without copious apologies for its illegible structure. I’ve learned to be okay with my dysgraphia, despite its implications for my experience as a mathematician, an academic, a person. The world is not what it once was, and it will not always be as it is.

Even just twenty years ago, my dysgraphia would have hindered my ability to be a fully active member of academia. Now, LaTeX allows me to engage with the world around me without fear of being misunderstood or failing to properly write beautiful mathematics.  Perhaps there will be a better solution to my conundrum by the time I finish my education and fully enter the world of academia. For now, I must be content with what I have at my fingertips.

Isaac WeissIsaac Weiss is currently working on his MA degree in Mathematics at Bowling Green State University. He graduated from The College of Wooster in 2020, where he double majored in Mathematics and Political Science. His 70-page thesis, written in LaTeX, explored compactness measures for legislative districts and was mentored by Dr. John Ramsay and Dr. Bas van Doorn. He fell in love with math as a middle schooler when he was given misleading information about exponents, leading him to explore the rules of mathematics in depth with his father, an algebraic topologist. He was diagnosed with dysgraphia in the second grade and has spent every day since working on finding ways to work on his written communication skills.

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