Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to leave campus for a weekend sojourn at my grandmother’s house, reuniting with relatives. Still burdened by a Princeton workload, I brought all of my school supplies with me, remembering in particular that I needed to carry a pencil sharpener, because my grandmother no longer has one.
Seated at a round table enjoying dim sum, I confronted my family to discover why no one else had noticed such an anomalous absence from my grandmother’s home. One of my cousins rhetorically inquired, “who uses pencils anymore, anyway?” Before I could blurt out, “I do, for taking notes!” I realized that my insistence on utilizing pencils for schoolwork was, in fact, outdated and unusual.
This planted doubt in my mind about my educational philosophy: in an age when technology makes school work more and more convenient, why do I even use pencil and paper to take notes at all? I entertained reasons as to why I should consider going digital — replacing pencils and paper entirely, with an electronic system of note-taking and reading — like the remainder of my family had already done.
For one thing, technology consolidates material. Combing through my backpack at my grandmother’s house, I noticed that going digital would render all of the objects inside that were weighing my backpack down unnecessary. A holepuncher, over 12 inches long, resides permanently in my backpack’s front pocket, accompanying a well-used, deformed box of reinforcement tabs. I carry spare pens and pencils too, crammed in with my eraser and pocket pencil sharpener, which dusts the entire load if I neglect to empty it. This extensive collection of items, strewn throughout my bag, serves the sole purpose of facilitating pencil-and-paper notes.
Not only might going digital declutter the mess inside of my backpack, but it would also allow me to become more organized. My cousins spoke of elaborate systems of folders on their computers for sorting class notes — systems of folders that I replace with physical binders and dividers. Digital documents are easier to manage than their physical equivalents: one can separate and rearrange digital notes, and there is no danger of them being ruined by spilled caffeinated beverages, a high risk for me.
The single most convincing reason to eschew pencil and paper is efficiency. Indeed, I, like most students, type faster than I write by hand. Taking digital notes, thus, reduces the likelihood of writing slowly and missing an important concept in a lecture. Perusing digital documents to find particular notes, too, is much faster than leafing through tattered pages of handwritten notes. Furthermore, I fall into the large sect of the population who often fail to understand their own handwriting, which would become a non-issue in digital notes.
Beyond these larger reasons, adopting a digital system of note-taking and doing homework would be beneficial to the environment, reduce hand cramps, and be cheaper, not requiring me to restock on pencils, paper, binders, and other supplies that wear out with age.
Yet, after mulling over these thoughts in my head, I came to the firm conclusion that I would keep my current pencil-and-paper system. This decision was indubitably motivated at least in part by obstinacy, but also maintained a logical basis. It is precisely the slowness of taking physical notes, with their weight and bulk weighing down my bag and their inability to consolidate neatly, that attracts me to them.
The time that handwriting notes takes is time when I can absorb the information I write, time which digital note-taking eliminates. As a visual learner, the processes of drawing charts, putting my thoughts out on paper, and seeing written notes all aid in my understanding. Plus, paper note-taking makes drawing diagrams, a common occurrence in lectures, much easier to do.
Wielding tangible symbols of schoolwork — binders, pencil sharpeners, hole punches, etc. — albeit occasionally a nuisance, feels cathartic, while simply reviewing electronic documents lacks this satisfactory feeling. Because I have all of my notes in physical form for each class, I can easily pull out notes from earlier to compare them with my current notes or to refer back to them. While going electronic would still facilitate comparing or referring to older notes, this process is made much easier with physical documents, for with physical documents, I can mark notes with sticky tabs, and compare as many different notes at a time that I choose.
Lastly, the inherent mess of physical notes — which cannot be re-ordered after they are written — represents the inherently disorganized nature of thought, an idea absent from notes on a computer. Reordering notes after I take them to better represent a logical order is another helpful learning activity that digitization prevents from occurring. Seeing disorganized notes in conjunction with organized ones on paper allows me to visualize my learning process, which is impossible on the computer.
For all these reasons, though the faults in my current system of schoolwork are high in number, they do not sway me from utilizing pencils and paper.
Ollie Thakar is a first-year from Baltimore, M.D. He can be reached at email@example.com.