On (re-)learning to type

I’ve been using a QWERTY keyboard more or less daily for decades, but I didn’t get serious about typing well until March. (Re-)learning this basic skill has led me to reflect on the process of learning itself, and the importance of admitting and remedying gaps in my knowledge and abilities, however basic or embarrassing they might seem. I’ve come to locate a truer embarrassment in letting ego or fear hold us back from confronting and overcoming our own ignorance.

I came to practice typing technique when I realized just how poor my abilities were this year. Learning to program showed me just how much of an impediment my idiosyncratic technique was to my ability to write and edit text quickly and accurately. Technical deficiencies that hadn’t noticeably held me back from years of writing became painfully obvious in the face of unfamiliar character sequences and combinations. Just as an example, I think I needed to type several years worth of {}s, =s, and #s in the first few weeks of programming basics alone. As I write and revise this now in VIM, I remember just how awkward the command combinations felt when at first. The time had come to finally learn proper typing technique.

This deficiency was totally my responsibility. As I child, I was lucky enough to be encouraged, and even required, to learn and practice proper typing technique, but, at that time, I just didn’t put in the effort to master the skill and keep it up. As a student in high school, college, and even graduate school, I never reached a point where I needed to have better technique than I already did. I became faster and more accurate haphazardly, in unstable and contextually-dependent patterns. It now would be my responsibility to retrace my steps, go back to the basics, and get it right.

I started working through the lessons on typingweb.com from the very beginning, cycling back through the beginning and intermediate sections over and over. To paraphrase Master Yoda, I had to unlearn what I had learned. I slowed down significantly before I started speeding up. By the end of March, I had started to plateau around 65 words per minute with 98-99% accuracy. Since then, progress has been been steady but slower, and each small improvement has taken more work to realize. I am now working towards bridging the gap between 75 and 80 wpm, with the goal of breaking the 80 wpm barrier. I can feel the muscle memory building. I catch my fingers moving to the keys far faster than I track them as a conscious mental process. I can feel the movements becoming natural.

Reflecting on the process and practice it took to reach this point, I’m struck by the wider resonances of this process with my larger project of learning and re-invention. On a small scale–small enough for me to notice and feel it daily–(re-)learning to type has been like learning programming or mathematics over the same period. I’ve needed a similar attitude towards admitting my own deficiencies, going (back) to basics, and frequent practice. In each case, I couldn’t let ego, and/or a fear of exposing my own ignorance, get in the way of learning. I couldn’t allow myself to cover a lack of knowledge with a thin veneer of competence and miss out on the foundations.

In my experience as a researcher, student, and educator, I’ve seen the opposite approach over and over. From time to time, I’ve been tempted to it myself. This approach is the way of the student who, afraid of appearing ignorant, holds back a question, and in so doing, loses the chance to learn. It is the way of the scholar who assumes an analytical concept uncritically, and without really knowing what it means to zir. It is the way of the person who excuses zir inability, however accurately, as the fault of poor teachers or circumstances, and chooses not to act to remedy it later in life. It is also the way of the person who chooses not to learn now because such knowledge would be “kids’ stuff.” These attitudes impede our learning by leading us to perform competence rather than building its underlying substance.

As a student of programming and software development. I don’t want to fall into that trap. I don’t want to fall prey to fears and insecurities and miss out on the chance to learn. I don’t want to skip or b.s. my way through foundational skills, even those as basic as typing well. With experience, I’ve learned to consider it far worse to remain ignorant than admit my deficiencies, however potentially embarrassing, and overcome them.   I’m reminded of this as I type.

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