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This article is the fourth in a series celebrating 10 years of the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship (RPPS), which supports collaborative scholarly and creative endeavors to engage communities and co-create projects that reach public audiences and have impacts beyond the university. RPPS provides workshops, grants, programs, and professional development opportunities for graduate students in any field.

The typewriter changed the way we write. Not only was its invention and use responsible for much of what we now consider standard elements of the writing process, but the device also made the practice of writing quicker, more efficient, and more accessible to all people. Many early typewriters, such as the one created by Agostino Fantoni in 1802, were developed to enable blind people to share in the writing experience.

Efforts to miniaturize the printing press had begun by at least the late 16th century, but it was the 19th that saw the technology take its greatest leaps forward. By 1883, when Mark Twain submitted the first known typewritten book manuscript to a publisher, Life on the Mississippi, the machine had come to embody the general form we know today. The 20th century saw electric power improve the devices even further, though even these new machines ultimately could not compete with advent of the word processor and personal computer in the latter decades of the century.

Though they have fallen out of common use, typewriters played a key role in how two Rackham alumni are helping the next generation connect with their creativity.

While researching for her dissertation on avant-garde Czechoslovakian publishing in the period between World Wars I and II, Rackham and U-M Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures alumna Meghan Forbes was inspired by the way those artists used typewriters and carbon paper to create novels and poetry. Together with fellow Rackham alumna Hannah Pröbsting, née McMurray, of the U-M Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, she co-founded harlequin creature, a nonprofit literary micro-press. Every issue of harlequin creature’s publication is typed on typewriters and hand-bound by a small team of volunteers, providing readers with a unique reading experience.

“At a time when dissemination is so easy online, we wanted to do something in the legacy of the interwar-era underground publishing movement,” Forbes says. “Using typewriters slows the process and lets you really think about the act of writing and producing something, and it allows us to get more people involved in that process.”

As part of the production process, the harlequin creature team hosts typing bees, during which volunteers type the issues on carbon paper. And after observing how much their volunteers enjoyed the work, Forbes and Pröbsting thought of another, more educational use for the venerable machines.

Children sitting at typewriters. Children participate in one of the typing workshops during a Community Free Day at the Dia Beacon museum in Beacon, NY in 2014. Photo by Nicki Sebastian

A Creative Approach to Creative Writing

Getting children interested and proficient in writing is an important part of early education, but it’s also one with which many students struggle. Using the typewriters that otherwise sat under Forbes’s couch, Forbes and Pröbsting developed the idea of holding workshops similar to the harlequin creature typing bees to give students a fun, very different experience with writing, one that might help them get over a block they might have around it. Through an $8,000 grant from the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship (RPPS), as well as support from local nonprofit writing center 826michigan, the pair started the Time Travel with Typewriters workshop program.

Each workshop began with an exercise to help the students familiarize themselves with the typewriters, and then they’re given writing prompts to help them get started. From there, however, each student took the project in their own unique direction.

“It was really sweet to see how the kids related to and creatively used the typewriters,” Forbes says. “They not only used them to write, but to create images and visual poetry. As just an example, one kid used the x’s and o’s to make a dynamic illustration of players on a soccer field. And at the end of each session, we’d finish by putting all of their work together in a book that each participant got to take home.”

The initial run of the program focused on southeast Michigan, particularly Ann Arbor and Detroit, but it soon expanded. After crowdsourcing additional funding, Forbes and Pröbsting took their project on the road, running workshops at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and at schools and museums in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. And while there are no new workshops currently planned, Forbes isn’t ruling out more in the future should the stars align.

An older woman and a young child sit at a typewriter. The typewriter workshops, including this one at the Dia Beacon museum, helped children find new ways to engage with writing. Photo by Nicki Sebastian

“This was a really fun way to apply my experience and knowledge outside of my own academic work, and to connect with young people outside the university,” Forbes says. “The enjoyment that comes from engaging with younger people is something I still feel today in the work I’ve done around exhibition programming for museums. And while we haven’t done a workshop in a few years, we never made a specific decision to discontinue them, either, and it would certainly be nice to see them continue if the opportunity arises.

“We hoped the workshops would inspire kids to take a different approach to writing,” Forbes says. “If it was something they found stressful or hard to approach, we wanted to take away some of that weight and free them up to be more creative.”

Other Stories in This Series:

  • Rackham Program in Public Scholarship Marks 10 Years The program helps students advance knowledge and share ideas that enrich higher education and the broader community.
  • Moral Victories Zoë A. Johnson King co-founded the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl, helping high school students explore and apply moral philosophy to local issues.
  • Boosting the Signal Jana Wilbricht studied the crucial role of tribal radio stations as sources of healthcare information in Native American communities.
  • Mining the Past Colin Quinn helped start a program that connects a Romanian community with its mining heritage.

How Rackham Helps

In addition to funding from RPPS, Forbes and Pröbsting were recipients of Rackham Predoctoral Fellowships, which supported them during the final year of their doctoral studies. They were also part of a graduate student interest group focused on avant-garde art which Rackham cosponsored.