Tuesday, July 7, 2015

2015 #9: Writing Without Teachers (P. Elbow)

This is a classic and it is easy to see why. I have been familiar with Elbow's ideas (e.g. "the doubting and believing game") for quite sometime, but had received much of the information secondhand. For their time, the ideas in the book were revolutionary. In today's culture of "flipped classrooms" and the like, I hope that he finds more sympathetic reception for his ideas. A "teacherless writing group" isn't necessarily realistic within most college curricula, but I think every teacher who grades papers needs to read this book. The book could also be called "Reading for Teachers"--although admittedly some of this information is subtextual. It is rather dreadfully unfair when you consider what happens in most undergraduate classrooms with "term papers"---and indeed most written assignments. Students have very little chance to muck out their ideas and the motivation for doing so is almost always external (going for the grade). Elbow advocates personal freewriting as an inroad for students to find an investment in their own writing. But he also--and this was my takeaway--admonishes the overly critical, doubting attitude that has swallowed up academia and intellectual culture. It is possible to uphold critical thinking as a value, but that can include the "practice [of] getting the mind to see or think what is new, different, alien" (173). By *believing* in other perceptions and experiences, we widen the scope of our ability to "make a gestalt" as Elbow says. While I'm still inclined to grade papers because I think assessment is too systemic to chuck it out the window at this point, I think I can integrate a lot of the ideas of the teacherless writing group into my classes--more so than I already have--and even more importantly, into my reading and grading.

The slightly ironic aspect of the book is Elbow's defiant use of repetition and metaphor to address his detractors. He writes on the defensive at times, and the new edition makes clear why this is, but it can feel a bit tiresome when one is playing the believing game with his book. At the same time, it is "meta" in some respects, because Elbow is clearly playing the doubting and believing game in his own prose. So his "invisible" detractors are sometimes advocates and sometimes naysayers. The most fascinating part are the windows into his own process--particularly the second appendix of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition where he shares some of his messy freewriting that eventually found voice in the book.

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