Like a Zen koan, “write without teachers” is not literally what its individual words signify but instead gestures to a larger sense, a perspective or type of consciousness. As a koan, “write without teachers” is not literally a full renunciation of the classroom teacher.
(If it did imply this renunciation, how would we understand Peter Elbow’s own long teaching career?)
One of the ways Elbow in Writing Without Teachers invites us to dwell with an enigma is through positing a metaphoric “absence” for teachers—the “without” part of that title. This metaphoric absence becomes a new role for writing instructors and offers an opportunity to engage in underlife.
In this case, it’s a question of whether the teacher-reader is ready to step aside and create a more student-centered developmental course, one which is devoted to studying with students the act of invention.
At the same time, the irrelevance of teachers is not entirely metaphoric. Elbow maintains that “learning is independent of teaching” and says, “I had come to notice a fundamental asymmetry: students can learn without teachers even though teachers cannot teach without students. The deepest dependency is not of students upon teachers, but of teachers upon students” (xviii). He adds that this most fundamental of his claims is “directly reflected in the title phrase, ‘without teachers’” (xviii). The paradox of Writing Without Teachers comes from the way in which Elbow invites writing specialists to accept their irrelevance to learning and to build a different curriculum around that truth.
But Elbow encourages us time and time again to accept the enigma not just of our respective educational roles but also of the enigma of writing.
As writers and writing teachers we are both in and out of control of the work of composing. In this view, the writing process is expansive and larger than our own individual consciousness: like an iceberg, we only see the tip of the writing process during moments in a course. Much of writing is submerged, “under,” and joins the enigmatic activities of the underlife.
With traditional instruction, the student supposedly subordinates herself to the teacher, but with Elbow’s work, you (student or teacher) subordinate yourself to that mystery of writing.
The credo of a writing teacher could read: The teacher to the student: "When I write, I am just as much in a space of chaos and possibility, of the unknown and of meaning that you are when you, non-teacher, write. When I teach writing, I am willing to admit this position, to show that I am open to the chaos and possibility, to the lack of certainty and to the joy of using words."
Personally, I have thought long and hard about my own relation to “writing without teachers.” I have given consideration to my own “absence” in the classroom. Ever since I was pursuing my second MFA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and was told in a TA training session that some instructors write, “Welcome, writer!” on the chalk board on the first day, I was hooked.
How is it that I can cheer along Elbow in his critique of writing teachers and continue to be a teacher myself?
How is it that I can feel so strongly about the limitations placed by writing instructors and academia on the act of writing and at the same time know that I owe so much to my own teachers? Can I, for instance, discount the fact that a seminar taught by Peter Elbow continues to have reverberations in my teaching fifteen years after the fact?
Is it vanity to think (along with everyone else) that I can be a “different kind” of teacher, one who does less harm, one who presents fewer unnecessary roadblocks to my students’ writing? Why do I have this habit of telling my students that I am a “writer first, teacher second”?
One answer I have determined for myself is that it has been those teachers in my past who promoted the underlife in their classes—who through their various gestures and communications afforded my writing the possibility of an existence beyond their purview—who have made me believe that a writing education is a powerful thing indeed.
With koans, the master didn’t help or provide the answers: instead, novices needed to do a lot of work on their own, a sort of self-education. Much like self-help, a koan entails life-long learning with no time-frame to resolution. It could take years (if ever) to find a resolution to the koan, much as the questions posed by Elbow in his early work still resonate with ambiguity.