Monday, February 18, 2013

What Is the Sound of Teaching Without a Teacher?

Since its publication in 1973, Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers has served a dual function.  For general readers, the book functions as a self-help text offering suggestions about composing and writer’s blocks; for academic readers, on the other hand, the book’s critique of their profession is an invitation to dwell with an enigma.  


Can we become stronger writing teachers by resigning our postures of mastery and accepting our flaws—even our irrelevance to learning?  Can we build a writing curriculum and pedagogy that include interests and perspectives from outside the academy?    


 Writing Without Teachers, a book seeped in metaphor and affected by twin audiences (scholars and people outside of academia) continues to resonate with its multiple meanings, its ambiguities (but never its ambivalence). This ambiguity, however, has been often overlooked inside academia.


Undergraduate students usually have a fresher perspective on Writing Without Teachers and Elbow’s project than writing specialists.  They can see its oddity as well as the paradox of such a book existing inside academic settings. 


On several occasions when teaching Elbow to non-English majors who I would guess with near certainty are unfamiliar with anything about composition theory, the students have reacted immediately to the book title: they look downright quizzical.    


Elbow’s ideas have become so deeply embedded into our whole praxis as writing scholars and teachers that we often don’t recognize his influence.  Elbow is like using the same handout semester after semester that someone lent us during graduate school, the ink and the authorship of the handout becoming that much more ambiguous with each passage through the copier machine.    


For students, on the other hand, the title can open a whole new plane of thinking: that they could complete writing that a teacher doesn’t see—and perhaps more phenomenally—that their writing instructor would even raise this possibility.   


For scholars just starting their careers in the early to mid 1970’s, the approach of Writing Without Teachers did strike them as a total mind shift.  For Theresa Enos, Elbow’s book was the impetus for her selection of Composition and Rhetoric as her discipline.  One of her teachers in graduate school, Gary Tate, assigned Writing without Teachers to Enos, and she was “kind of blown away by the book” (interview with Enos).   


A brand-new teaching assistant, Enos began using freewriting in all her classes and found that “Elbow was so completely different [from the modes-based instruction at her institution].  You were actually working with the student, intervening in the writing process ( which was the whole point of the process revolution).  It was a 100% turn-around, and I could see the engagement of the students.  I could see the cognitive process.  I could see their brain working through this freewriting” (interview with Enos). 


Other established composition theorists including Duane Roen (interview) and Lad Tobin describe their teaching styles prior to exposure to Writing Without Teachers as somewhat benighted—and how Elbow’s work helped them perceive students and the purpose of teaching more clearly. Writing Without Teachers has functioned as a koan for writing scholars, leading us to consider paradoxes inherent in writing instruction.   


In the Eastern tradition of spiritual learning, the enigmatic figures prominently in the form of the koan.  Novices in Zen training approached master monks with a question to which the monk would reply with a seemingly inscrutable answer—either verbally or physically.


Zen masters were known to resort to hitting, beating, and even maiming students, but they also used incoherence, ambiguity, imagery, and repetition to instruct.  Together, the initial question and the monk’s response served as a form of independent study for the novice who would spend an unprescribed amount of time working toward its solution.   

As D.T. Suzuki describes the koan in Zen Buddhism, the koan is intended to develop Zen consciousness by surpassing the limits of logic and intellectualism: “the koan given to the uninitiated is intended to ‘destroy the root of life,’ ‘to make the calculating mind die’, ‘to root out the entire mind that has been at work since eternity’” (138).   

One learning outcome of the koan, so to speak, is an embracing of paradox and contradiction as part of the reality of the present, not tampered with by categories and intellect.  A classic example from eastern thought of such paradox, although not a koan per se, is the Buddha’s pronouncement at a summit of monks that “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”  

Among the many paradoxes of Writing Without Teachers would be the yin-yang relationship of chaos and control, solitude and readership, creativity and analysis, doubt and belief.  
In “East Meets West: Peter Elbow’s ‘Embracing’ of ‘Contraries’ Across Cultures,” George Kalamaras describes the ways in which Elbow has engaged paradox throughout his career. Although Kalamaras is speaking of Elbow’s overall work with doubt and belief, Kalamaras’ description is also applicable to the 1973 book, how Elbow points to "the importance of remaining attentive to the interaction of what might on the surface be considered contradictory. This is similar to the use of Zen Buddhist koans (such as 'What is your face before your parents were born?,' whose paradoxical structure serves to sever the question from the answer (and, paradoxically, even from the questioner), reorienting one to a fresh experience of reality" (117).

And then there’s the question of the identity of Elbow’s “real” Writing without Teachers reader, given his choice to publish with a university press and given his own position inside academia.   

Does Elbow really mean that we should write totally without teachers, or is there some sort of half-way state?  If we are a teacher-reader of Writing without Teachers, does this mean we should cease all teaching in order to teach?   

In my next post, I will consider the paradox—or tautology—in that notion.

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