Musings on Peter Elbow (and Bartholomae)

02. February 2015 Musings and Thoughts 0

In his response to David Bartholomae’s critique of expressive writing and defense of “academic writing,” Peter Elbow wants to fight against the impulse and tradition of treating certain texts as monuments, pieces behind glass, thus making a syllabus seem like a trip through a museum. Bartholomae would agree. Treating texts as monuments, as such, prevents one from engaging with them and the history of them.

Anyway, Elbow believes that writers should spend as much time reading as they do writing. Elbow believes that teachers learn how to “coach” writing by writing themselves. Academics spend too much time reading and thus become less effective writers and coaches of writing. Writing itself is reading, he claims, due to the act of reading over what one writes. English departments courses don’t make the act/process of writing as important as reading (or studying good writing), and this is a problem for him.

A reader-centric view of text purports that the author does not exist, that meaning is unstable, that there is not authorial intention or voice behind a text. The meaning is held solely with the reader. A writer-centric view wants readers to know the voice behind the text, the intention and the process – that there is a definite meaning waiting to be found.

He addresses the “discourse of power” and the authority of the teacher issue on page 76. He acknowledges that the teacher, as academic, as reader-centric grader, always maintains a level of control in meaning. She gets to decide what the student text means, taking ownership away from the student-writer. However, in writing a lecture for the student-readers, the teacher positions herself in the point of authority, as owner. The academic (usually a reader) actually enjoys the writer-centric position. She is a hypocrite, according to Elbow and does not allow the students to enjoy the privilege of ownership over writing that she enjoys herself as lecturer/academic/teacher/grader.

Elbow questions the self-granted authority of a reader to interpret a text better than the writer. The teacher, therefore, cannot possibly be a better interpreter/grader of writing than the student who wrote it. Elbow notes that readers are also very logocentric as they believe that writers are always thinking about them when they write, that there is no such thing as “writing for the self” (76).

Elbow is before his time in proclaiming dancing, painting, music, etc as forms of text/language/knowledge, and by extension, writing. These are forms of expressive writing also shunned by traditional academics. With the rise of DH, disability studies, and so forth, these notions among academics are changing. The highest priority of a teacher (or for Elbow as teacher) is to understand their writing. This is the main thing that helps writers. Pointing out misunderstandings is second priority. This assumes that the writer-student knows more than they can articulate (77).

His dream is that all academics and teachers saw themselves as writers as much as they see themselves as readers. I wonder how things work in a creative writing course and how teachers of “critical” literature can employ some of these techniques. Maybe we can invite someone from the CW dept to our class.

He says that he tries to get student-writers to trust language. Academics don’t trust language to be neutral, clear, and un-political. (Is he saying that language has a one-to-one relationship with Truth?) He wants them to hold off the distrust for the revising stage of the process. I suppose freewriting is a way to “trust” language.

He notes that academics carry on conversations with the dead and the unborn (79). He does not dispute this practice (Bartholomae’s argument) of situating oneself within an academic conversation and history of writing. He says that in a first year class, he wants the student-writers to pretend like there are no authorities who have ever written before. They should pretend that they are charting new territory. (Interestingly, this is kind of how I start a new research project. I contemplate and write an idea that I have as if it is original, and then try and situate it within the larger context. It’s a lot less daunting that way.) Student-writers can discover alternative ways of situating oneself in later years or semesters of coursework.

Elbow claims that he enjoys allowing students to situate their writing into conversation with dialogic discourse with other students in the class. The classroom (and indeed multiple sections, if teaching in such a way) becomes a microcosm of the wider academic community, and in a sense, even more intense because the audience is right in front of you and you do have the opportunity to address issues of class, race, and gender when responding to the class writing project (79). He takes a big shot at Bartholomae and the tradition of academia when he says that traditional student papers are monologic, like soliloquies. He assigns these as well, but allows them to explore various types of writing too.

He wants to allow student-writers to get away from “Is this okay?” stance in their writing and move to a “Listen to me; I have something to tell you” stance. He thinks it is perfectly fine for a first year student to feel that they are at the center of the universe in their writing. It allows them to find their own voice apart from the wider conversation (of people who are smarter/more readerly than you).

I will say that I was a skeptic, and although I don’t completely agree with all of Elbow’s ideas, I do find him to be a kindred spirit. I think that what he is a man before his time. However his writing processes very much so align with my own and I would like to continue reading his work. I am also interested in Bartholomae’s text Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts. This is an excellent debate and something all academics and teachers of writing should concern themselves with. How can we accommodate all writers, draw out their individual voices, encourage autobiography and soliloquy while also taking care to remind writers of their place within a history and a context of texts and writing(s) and writers, and their obligation to acknowledge that context? This is a question that has no simple answer and, as I hope, will be continually discussed in classrooms and on the written page.



Bartholomae, David. “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46:1 (1995): 62-71. JSTOR. Web.

Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46:1 (1995): 72-83. JSTOR. Web.

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