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Elbow: Being a Writer Vs. Being an Academic

Although we don't yet have a summary (Lu?) here are some questions to think about and comment on here:

Do you agree w/the conflicts Elbow sees between writers and academics?
Elbow is thoughtful about the treatment of published readings/models---how do his views compare w/yours?
How persuasive do you find Elbow's interest in ignoring audience and precedents? Why/not?
How might the conflicts Elbow sees between the "interests of the writer" and the interests of "academics-as-readers" affect the way you set up peer response workshops in your course?
Do you see any agreement between Bartholomoae and Elbow? Points of contrast?
How might Bartholomae and Elbow fit in Berlin's four classifications?


Marcia's comment about the dilemma posed by Elbow being a chicken/egg question hit home for me. Given my social science training, I'm forever leary of either/or dilemmas, looking instead for the both/and. Sure enough, by the end of the piece, I was fasctinated by the way in which Elbow modelled both the writer and the academic in the same piece, even while saying they're incompatible. He models the writer with his clear subtext, "Listen to me, I have somethign to say" at the same time he is situating his article/proposal into the larger context, "Perhaps David and others can persuade me that I am wrong..."

I wasn't clear about Elbow's conflict #6, trust/distrust of language. He says that the role of academic requires a "distrust of language" since "language is not a clear and neutral medium." But I've never seen neutrality as required for trust -- for example, we can "trust" certain people to act in the own interests. I would propose that academics and writers both "count on" language in the same way. They both count on ("trust") language to be robust, malleable, vibrant. Neither academics nor writers count on language to be neutral.

Elbow's academic v. writer distinction is one I've thought a lot about since I start teaching, both in how I have tried to help students see themselves as "writers/academics" and how I "present" myself to them as a "writer/academic." I realize that the primary thrust of his essay seems to be about students as "writers/academics," but it's hard for me to think about one without the other. Sometimes I feel that I'm considerably more comfortable in my "writer" skin than I am in my "academic" skin, and as a result I talk a lot about my own process as a writer (does that make me a "model" of sorts?), and whether that's successful, I'm not quite sure. I'd be interested in how others negotiate that "writer as teacher" role.

I had a harder time understanding his points about using texts as "models." On the one hand he says that "it seems crucial to avoid coming at key texts (or student texts) as models" (491), but a bit later he says "I must be sure not to 'teach' these texts...but rather to 'have them around' to wrestle with, to bounce off of, to talk about and talk from, to write about and write from" (491). His latter statement seems awfully close to using texts as models to me -- or maybe I'm just missing his point, and I really don't see how "using" them is different from "serving' them.

In addition, I've also struggled with the "how much should we be reading" question in my classes. Last semester I used a short memoir in my Basic Writing course, and while I know students enjoyed reading the book, I don't know that it really did much for them as writers. I often got caught up in recapping what happened in chapter 4 instead of really focusing on what the writer was "doing," which was why I thought I'd give the book a try in the first place. So in that way, I sometimes wondered if I was teaching more of a reading/lit course than a writing course, or trying to do both in some ways. Just as a matter of curiosity, I'd really be interested to know how others have (or haven't) used books in a first year writing course, and whether it's been successful for them.

I have very mixed feelings about Elbow's essay. On the one hand, I do like his interest in encouraging his students to feel confident about themselves as writers; this seems to be very similiar to Bartholomae's interest in getting his students to have the guts to immitate him. (The clay model writer may have a degree of confidence that the white shoes writer does not have, although I suspect that the white shoes writer is not so much so much unsure of himself, as he is clueless, and this is a big problem for Elbow). But, otherwise, I found Elbow's essay to be pretty banal. Elbow, for instance, says that he has his students "publish a class magazine about four times a semester" (491). But since Elbow is presumably assinging his students less reading than Bartholomae, I can only wonder what these students are writing about for this magazine. I suspect that these students aren't being pushed to say anything particularly intelligent in these magazine pieces. This is a very serious problem with privileging writing in the way that Elbow wants to do. Good writers are not necessarily good citizens, and I am very uncomfortable with the way Elbow answers the dilemma "Whether I should invite my first year students to be self-absorbed and see themselves at the center of the discourse -- in a sense, credulous; or whether I should invite them to be personally modest and intellectually scrupulous and to see themselves as at the periphery -- in a sense, skeptical and distrustful" (496). The university is, at its heart, set up to give students skills to make money, to become better able to pursue their own selfish interests. Isn't Elbow's insistence that "autobiography is often the best mode of analysis" (496) needlessly complicit in this? In other words, is the problem with our society that we don't have enough self-absorbed people or that we don't have enough "skeptical and distrustful" people?

As a fellow “romantic� when it comes to writing, I cheered Elbow along in the beginning. Yes, my intentions are lost in the woods, and yes, I want readers to care. Writers are not simply channels for the surrounding discourse, each more featureless than the last. Genius does exist and account for something! The conflict between writer and academic is even more pronounced with regard to creative writing.

But in my less ardent moments I situate myself somewhere between Bartholomae and Elbow. Students shouldn’t merely mimic rhetorical games and believe themselves players in the academic power structure—that false sense of their own significance is at least as dangerous as Elbow’s more introspective kind. They should, however, as Dewey advocated, move from self-centeredness to an awareness of their roles as participants in (discourse) communities.

Seems that many composition instructors begin their courses with autobiographical assignments, encouraging writers to “find a voice� and become comfortable expressing themselves (the feel-good Elbow stage). As the course continues, students are asked to learn and conform to conventions in the context of particular assignments (nod to Bartholomae). I use this same pattern with the learners at Franklin. They’re often new to writing in English, and I want them to gain confidence and enjoy the experience (as Elbow wishes for his students, new to the academy), so they have a sense of writerly identity to build from as we move into conventional strategies. By the time I introduce forms and styles that will be useful to them on the job and in the classroom, they understand that there are many ways of writing to choose and adapt. If I started off a writing course with a thesis-driven essay, with no reference to the writing people have done in the past, and no encouragement to experiment and become comfortable, my talk of making informed choices would seem hollow.

I see a clear agreement between Bartholomae and Elbow. While Bartholomae believes the new student is better prepared for her or his education if they "take on the role of privilege, by their abilities to establish authority."(616) Elbow wants his first year students to be able to say in their writings, "I have something to tell you". Both are talking of the same concept. In both cases, the new student takes the position of someone who is in Bartholomae words "setting himself against a "Common discourse." (610)

I love what Elbow says in his second paragraph: that he wants his students to feel like writers, and to come away from their first-year courses saying that writing is "an important part of my life" (489). I'm still not sure how to help them reach that point, though - even after reading this essay.

Another point I really relate to is one that Gary brought up - the role of texts, and the choice in both which texts to read and how to read them. In the non-native speaker sections of freshman comp, writing definitely takes priority over reading. I hope that Elbow is right - that virtually all other courses "privilige reading over writing" (492) - and that I can therefore not worry that my students are not receiving the guidance in critical reading that I think they need. I fear, though, that it doesn't quite work that way. In one semester, I'm not sure that I can adequately address both - and I do think that students really need the focus we provide on writing instrcution. It just always seems like there is too much to cover and not enough time!

This doesn't involve any deep thought, but the similarity for me in this piece and Bartholomae's is that feeling I get that I cannot possibly teach my students everything that they need to know about reading and writing in one course. Obviously no one expects me to do that, but I wish I had a better sense of what pieces they are getting in other courses so that I had a better idea of where to focus my time and instruction! Always one to look for a silver lining, I'm comforted by knowing that Peter Elbow strugggles with that same conflict; I'm not alone!

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