Barry McNamara  |   Published February 25, 2022

Just His Type

Educational studies professor Brad Rowe spreading the joy of writing on vintage machines.

BRAD ROWE: Monmouth educational studies professor spent his sabbatical last fall on various event... BRAD ROWE: Monmouth educational studies professor spent his sabbatical last fall on various events centering around vintage typewriters.MONMOUTH, Ill. – We’ve all the heard the call to slow down, to relax, to unplug.

Monmouth College educational studies professor Brad Rowe says that one way to do that is by steering clear of technology with a more “old school” approach.

“Older ways of doing things have always appealed to me – I’d rather play a vinyl record with my grandmother’s 1966 player than pop in earbuds,” said Rowe, who joined Monmouth’s faculty as a full-time professor in 2015.

Last fall, Rowe used his sabbatical to explore the world of typewriters. He learned how to repair them, and he enjoyed watching as students young and old sat down to type at one, most of them for the very first time.

Rowe will provide that opportunity again at a free public event at 7 p.m. March 19 at the Warren County History Museum, 238 S. Sunny Lane, Monmouth.

“My ability to concentrate on a single task seemed to be deteriorating, and I would easily become bored or uncomfortable unless I was in front of a screen. Typewriters helped.” Brad Rowe

Rather than a lecture on the history of the typewriter, it will be an interactive event for all ages. Attendees will have plenty of opportunities to use vintage typewriters to type letters, with stamps, envelopes and vintage paper supplied by the museum. Among other activities, attendees can request a custom poem, typed by a poet from Monmouth College. Both English professor David Wright and English major Kylie McDonald ’23 of Galesburg, Illinois, will be on hand to provide that service.

“It should be a lot of fun and a great opportunity for all to come out to experience the joy of vintage typewriters,” said Rowe.

Curing the COVID blues

Although Rowe has always appreciated an old school approach, his interest in typewriters can be traced back two years ago to the start of the pandemic.

“During the initial wave of COVID shutdowns when the College went remote, it didn’t take long for me to feel the effects of constant emailing and being on Zoom all day,” he said. “My ability to concentrate on a single task seemed to be deteriorating, and I would easily become bored or uncomfortable unless I was in front of a screen. Typewriters helped.”

Rowe began repairing vintage typewriters, “balancing all that screen time with something more physically engaging and tactile. It’s a great way to neutralize the encroachment of the digital world,” he said.

Once the machines were fixed, Rowe found he enjoyed using them, too.

“Sometimes less is more, and what I need to do is simplify, slow down, concentrate and be more thoughtful in my work,” he said. “On a typewriter, without the ability to impulsively check email or social media, all that’s left to do is write.”


Hands-on learning experience

As part of his sabbatical project, Rowe has been finding ways to put typewriters to work through public-facing events on campus and in the local community. He also implemented “Typewriter Tuesdays” at the Jamieson Community Center’s afterschool tutoring program.

TYPEWRITER TUESDAYS: Brad Rowe assists a student during the Jamieson Community Center's after... TYPEWRITER TUESDAYS: Brad Rowe assists a student during the Jamieson Community Center's afterschool program.“Students used typewriters for journaling, for play, and for other literacy-based activities – activities that were facilitated by a team of student volunteers from the College’s educational studies department,” said Rowe. “It was a wildly successful program, and I hope to do something similar soon.”

Rowe said that younger students “are often awestruck the first time they encounter a typewriter. They light up with wonder and possibility.” His older college students took to the machines in a social setting, which Rowe called “Snail Mail Socials.”

“Several students told me that this was their first time sending a letter in the mail.” Brad Rowe

“It’s wonderful to see college students huddling around a typewriter, laughing, socializing and enjoying themselves,” he said. “The fact that students want to spend an afternoon with a typewriter writing a letter to a loved one – rather than mindlessly scrolling Twitter or TikTok – means the world to me. I am so moved by the response and turnout at these events.”

SNAIL MAIL SOCIAL: Monmouth College students enjoyed the benefits of writing letters the old scho... SNAIL MAIL SOCIAL: Monmouth College students enjoyed the benefits of writing letters the old school way at an event Brad Rowe organized last fall.For the first event, Rowe thought bringing eight typewriters would be enough, but at one point, there was a line of students waiting for typewriters to be available. That’s not the only thing that caught him by surprise.

“Several students told me that this was their first time sending a letter in the mail,” he said. “I love the fact that college students – who in 2022 could just send a text – were able to physically mail a typed letter to a parent, friend or grandparent. That warms my heart.”

‘Defiantly analog’

Rowe said a noted computer science professor, Cal Newport, coined the phrase “defiantly analog” for “a physical object that demands struggle before it begins to return value – but when it does, the value is more substantial and lasting than the sugar high of a lightweight digital distraction.”

“One reason why typewriters appeal to me is because they are defiantly analog – they defy the quiet, sleek, lightweight, easily portable, ‘smart’ features of our digital devices that need replaced every few years.” Brad Rowe

“One reason why typewriters appeal to me is because they are defiantly analog – they defy the quiet, sleek, lightweight, easily portable, ‘smart’ features of our digital devices that need replaced every few years,” said Rowe. “The mid-20th century typewriters I work with are loud, musky, heavy, built-to-last machines. And I love that. I regularly use machines that are approaching 100 years old, like a 1920s Smith-Corona that just needed a good cleaning and a new ribbon. It could easily endure another hundred years.”

Rowe said part of his intent was to work on his personal commitment to “doing meaningful, fulfilling work.”

“I also wanted to share the joy and benefits of typewriters with others,” he said. “To get a 70+-year-old machine back to being fully functional and aesthetically beautiful, and then to share it with the community and younger generations, is a really good feeling.”

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