Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers

I've been working in an increasingly Elbow-y mode in my return to academic life. I had the good fortune to team-teach with Maureen Nicholson at Royal Roads in August 2005, and she modelled for me some of the benefits of using Peter Elbow's ideas more deeply than I'd figured out at that point.
And now I've finally read Writing Without Teachers, and I'm not sure what it does to me. It speaks directly to my ambivalence about marking, for sure, to my reluctance to write for myself, and to my distrust of my own past writing -- including writing that's found some success. But I don't really know how to move this into my classrooms.

Actually, no. I know how I'll use it in my nonfiction classes, because there we deal with these exact problems of voice and readership and self-editing. But I don't know how to move the inspirational model of writing into the research-based land of academic composition. I'm not sure how an introductory biology student, for example, would make sense of Elbow's freewriting toward a final paper. Of course Elbow's model makes lots of room for late-stage editing, which I assume includes the quotation of or reference to research material, but the introductory nature of the student's knowledge would make much of the writing premature before some hardcore research on the topic was done.

Elbow's words on marking rang very true. For my composition classes, I have a vision in mind of Good Academic Writing: I'm aware of the ideology behind it (thanks to Williams and Nadel's Style: Seven Lessons in Clarity and Grace), but I want sentence-level clarity, few basic grammatical errors, awareness of grammatical complexity (such as using grammatical "mistakes" for deliberate effect), and an intro plus conclusion that help a reader without being obvious about it ("In this essay I..."). But the model doesn't always explain why I want to respond positively or negatively. I've known that since I first started marking, lo these many years ago, but his discussion is the clearest articulation of it I've seen, and hence it's very seductive.

I'm not turning my first-year composition classes into Elbow's teacherless classroom, though. I don't think he'd recommend it anyway, but I'm saying it anyway. So there.

But I'm posting some of his words on my office door, because they spoke directly to the kind of project I insist on in my classes:
The function of a good critic, then, is not to discredit a bad reading but to make better readings available. (166)

The main hindrance to the search for truth is probably the inability to abandon a present belief and adopt a better one when it comes along -- even though it may be harder to believe, or may involve admitting you were wrong, or may come from someone you don't want to agree with. (184)


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