Revolution Lullabye

April 9, 2009

Elbow, Writing Without Teachers

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

First edition 1973.

The book is divided between Elbow’s five practical chapters about how to write more fluidly and construct a teacherless writing class and his appendix, which articulates his theory behind his teacherless pedagogy, a theory about how ideas are found and tested through two different methods: the believing game and the doubting game. Academia favors the doubting game (critiquing writing and arguments to find and weed out errors) over the believing game (coming up with different scenarios and hypothesis to test the validity of a given argument, to suspend disbelief and step in the writer’s shoes.) Elbow argues that there needs to be a balance between the two, and the believing game, so often dismissed, offers a valuable way to productively understand and make meaning through metaphor and relationships.

Elbow explains his pedagogy using two different metaphors: growing and cooking. Good writing grows, beginning with a lot of freewriting, then heading towards chaos, then organizing into centers of gravity, and then reforming through ferocious revision. Good writing also cooks, involving a number of competing and conflicting elements (ideas, arguments, words, metaphors, modes) which are forced to interact with each other. Noninteraction comes from an absence of conflict (static agreement) or from constant, unproductive conflict (deadlock and stalemate.) He advocates multiple, quick drafts, attacking the writing as a whole, not through parts, and unleashing energy and words through constrained, 10-minute frequent freewrites. Writing, Elbow argues, cannot be fully completed unless it is done in interaction with others, and thus he argues for a teacherless writing class, one in which a core number of writers commit to writing and responding to a draft once a week. He sets up guidelines for responding readers and writers in Chapter 4 and 5.

Quotable Quotes

“Make writing a global task, not a piecemeal one.” (72)

“Our conception of intellectual process is so dominated by critical thinking” (xxv)

Notable Notes

2nd edition begins with an introduction in which Elbow calls attention to his appendixed theory (doubting and believing games) and invites further response to it.

Believing game is what Quakers, juries have to do; it is what happens during a paradigm shift (Thomas Kuhn)

many fast drafts instead of one slow one

it’s better in responding to be honestly subjective (share the movie in your mind) than trying to be objective

human beings are most of the time not in communication with each other – people passively listen, nod, agree – that’s why a genuine teacherless writing group is so invigorating

his pedagogy is backed by his theory, specifically of the importance of the believing game to the intellectual enterprise.

the believing game allows for multiple gestalts, multiple meanings, requires waiting, patience, and a commitment to the importance of experience

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