Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. -- Virginia Woolf
I am a mathematician who has been teaching first-year seminars at my college for the last seven years. First-year seminars at Pomona College are writing intensive and aim to introduce students to, among other things, college writing. Looking at my CV, you will see that I have never been formally trained to teach how to write. This does some injustice, of course, to the two directors of college writing at my institution who have facilitated yearly training workshops for just this purpose. I was also the lucky recipient of many just-in-time tips and ample support from colleagues teaching their own first-year seminars every year. I can therefore claim to have benefited from on-the-job training. Not the equivalent of a Ph.D. in rhetoric or composition, but we all live with what we’ve got.
Thus, it will probably come as no surprise that writing instruction is difficult for me, and I continue to feel like a novice, even after all these years. Still, I have cultivated some tools and techniques through trial and error that have thus far served me well. In this essay, I will share my favorite ones and defend my perspective on writing instruction.
These all revolve around Peter Elbow and his Writing Without Teachers, which I use in my first-year seminar classes. Elbow is a distinguished writing scholar, known to many for his various contributions to the field. I came across his work when I was trying to learn more about freewriting, that genre of writing that loosely resembles free fall and yet is, perhaps surprisingly, much less scary. To freewrite you practically just let yourself go free, oftentimes without a prompt, and then scribble away. Or type away, for today’s keen typists. Later I learned, from Elbow again, that he was not the first person to write about freewriting. He cites the late educator and writer Ken Macrorie as the person who coined the phrase, who in turn pointed toward others such as poet William Carlos Williams. But Elbow was the one who introduced it to me.
I fell hard for freewriting. At the time, I was exploring what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and other works, calls morning pages. You are to write them as soon as you wake up in the morning and in longhand -- you just write away for three pages. If you are typing, you go to 750 words. Cameron’s point is that this helps you “unleash your creativity.” I found that it helped clean away the gunk in my brain -- to clear the cobwebs and all the silly things that kept me from focusing on what I wanted to focus on but could not.
Then, as every good convert, I had to evangelize. I had my first-year seminar students write morning-pages journals. One poor class suffered through 750 words for five days a week. I was kind; I did give them optional themes for each day. One day could be about the class, another about what they wanted out of life, another about math, another about zombies and so on.
That semester, I must have had the best, or at least the most agreeable, students. They did not complain. Or, rather, they did complain, but not too much. So I decided I could decrease the number of days of writing and number of words. But I still liked this freewriting, and I wanted to keep it. Perhaps I could help my students more if I could convince them of its usefulness.
That is when I found Elbow. He was eloquent in his defense of freewriting. As a writing instructor who did not trust her ability to instruct said writing, I found the title of his book, Writing Without Teachers, enticing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if my students could figure out how to write without me? Then I would not feel so guilty. Reading the book changed my life.
Garbage and Nonsense Required
Elbow has three core messages in the book, as he summarizes in his introduction to the second edition:
- “If I wanted to get quality, I needed to invite garbage and nonsense.” Anybody who has attempted any freewriting at all will acknowledge that a lot of garbage and nonsense emerges. Elbow claims this is not optional, at least for his own process.
- “Learning is independent of teaching.” Corollary: students can learn without teachers. Another corollary: sometimes we just need to get out of their way.
- “I [am] struck with the limitations of argument, doubt, debate and criticism. I [am] trying to show the power of a disciplined and methodological use of believing, listening, affirming, entering in, attending to one’s experience and trying to share one’s experience with others.” Elbow calls these the doubting game and the believing game and explains them in detail in a lengthy appendix titled “The Doubting Game and the Believing Game -- An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise.”
I use all these ideas in my first-year seminars.
The believing game is one that I encourage students to play when first reading any of the assigned texts for our course. This aligns with the encouragement of Kathleen Fitzpatrick to “read with the grain” first, as well as Woolf’s admonition that started this essay. It also resembles the first method of reading that my colleague Oona Eisenstadt recently described:
“The author knows everything.
The author has thought of everything.
The text is brilliant.
The text does not make mistakes.”
This approach also shows up to an extent in peer review and my feedback to student papers.
Learning without teachers is arguably the ultimate goal of our enterprise. We want to make sure our students will continue to learn once they graduate. I aim to facilitate a transition to this in my first-year seminars by having student teams lead most of the discussions and remaining silent as much as is feasible in most discussions.
Perhaps the part that is most relevant to my writing instruction practice is Elbow’s first message: garbage and nonsense are required to reach a quality end product. This belief allows me to be more generous with students’ initial drafts. And it encourages students to write early and often, and, supplemented with Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” in Bird by Bird, sets the stage for the iterative writing process I am trying to promote in my class.
Always Right, Always Wrong
Now let us come finally to the eponymous teacherless writing class.
What is this about? Elbow claims that it is possible and perhaps necessary for teachers to get out of the way when students are trying to learn to write. He proposes a scheme he calls a teacherless writing class. His whole fourth chapter is on the logistics of running a teacherless class. This is a class where about seven to 12 people meet weekly and share their writing. The writing can be any type of writing, and the author can read it or bring copies for everyone to read on their own, and each person then has some time to respond to the writing. The responses need to avoid criticism, they need to be personal, and they can be, for lack of a better descriptive, strange. One individual's reaction may be a dance, another person might describe the writing in terms of colors or tastes, and so on. Elbow lists all kinds of funky ways people can react to what they read.
Elbow also offers several pieces of advice, both to the authors and to the responders. My favorite is this one directed to both parties: “You are always right and always wrong.”
If you are the reader, then you are “always right in that no one is in a position to tell you what you perceive and experience.” And you are “always wrong in that you never see accurately enough, experience fully enough.”
If you are the author, then you are “always right in that your decision about the writing is always final. They give you their experience; you decide what to do about it. You are in charge. You are the only one making decisions.” And you are “always wrong in that you can never quarrel with their experience -- never quarrel even with their report of their experience.”
This, here, is at the heart of my writing pedagogy. Or, at least, at the heart of my feedback process.
I try my best to provide students with multiple forms and sources of feedback. I share my thoughts with the student. Two or three students also give their views. Then I say it is the job of the student to read what they have received and then decide what it is they will do with all this feedback.
In my feedback, I try not to be diagnostic, in that I try not to say definitively why I felt that the student’s voice sounded stilted to me. I might suggest some possibilities, but I will always say this may not be the real reason. For example, I will say that, to me, a piece reads a little too informally and suggest that perhaps the prevalence of the F-word might have something to do with it. But I will not tell the student to drop the F-word. If, in the next version, the F-word is still everywhere and I am not detecting lackadaisical informality but rather that my discomfort is clearly intentioned and desired -- and it works -- then all is fine.
In a first-year seminar with a significant writing component, how can one implement the tenets of the teacherless writing class given that, in the end, the teacher will assign final grades to every student? It is rather difficult for students to accept that I am just one reader, reacting to their writing. I do tell them that I will not go back and look at my previous comments on their earlier drafts. I will give them my reaction, offer some possible reasons for it, but then leave it to them to figure out if that reaction is desirable.
So one student may decide to keep her F-word (because it's doing exactly what she wants it to do: unbalance the reader), and another might decide to drop his sentence fragments (because he doesn't want to distract the reader with sentence mechanics). Ultimately I am the reader who will assign their grade, so my reactions will play a large role in students’ revision processes, but I’m not invested in the specific path they take to their final paper. I’ll brainstorm with them about revision pathways, but I will not direct them. That is unsettling for some students, used to having a teacher tell them to do such and such to get an A. But I’ve learned that there are uncountable ways to a well-written and interesting paper, and that the most exciting are often invisible to me as the reader of a draft. In short, the author (student, with sufficient feedback) is the best arbiter of what they really want to say and how they can say it, given the freedom (and the responsibility) to do so.
Let me wrap up with a few words about being an uncredentialed writing instructor teaching writing. A colleague of mine refuses to teach first-year seminars because, he says, he has never been trained to teach how to write, so it would be educational malpractice for him to do so. With all due respect to this thoughtful pedagogue, I offer my alternative view. We are all academics, and as such, we are all in the business of writing. Writing is part of our craft, and it is part of our duty to teach our students all aspects of our craft.
Did I first grab Writing Without Teachers because of my insecurities as a writing instructor? Probably yes. Do I still depend on it because I need a scapegoat for not doing my job well? Certainly no. On the contrary, today I see this approach as an integral part of my pedagogical stance.