Writing Program 40th Anniversary Profile: Peter Elbow
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
This profile is the second in the Writing Program’s 40th anniversary series highlighting faculty members instrumental in beginning the WP at UMass Amherst. Each profile provides a unique perspective on how the program has grown since the beginning. We appreciate each one of them for sharing their thoughts and time with us!
Peter Elbow, former Director of the Writing Program and Professor Emeritus of the English Department
The Writing Program began its legacy of providing excellent writing instruction to UMass Amherst undergraduates in 1982. Since then, the program has changed along with the shifts in the university, the field of Writing Studies, and broader national and international scholarly movements. However, a commitment to student-centered writing instruction has remained consistent. To find out more about the evolution of the program since 1982, we spoke with previous administrators in the program. Peter Elbow, former Director of the Writing Program, shares his experiences.
Over the course of its 40 years, how do you think the program has changed?
I can’t answer. I’m too far away and out of it. But here is partly a description of where things have been in recent decades and partly a description of hopes for where I hope we can go. I spent all my time trying to persuade teachers of other disciplines to assign lots of writing. Naturally they didn’t want to do it because one, they had no training in it, and two, many of them had too many students to assign writing. I spent all my time trying to persuade them of a crucial truth: assigning writing does not require commenting or grading or even reading the writing they assigned. I kept trying to show them how to assign writing and not necessarily grade or comment on it. They can even assign it and collect it and still not read it.
This practice taught students something they needed to learn: how useful it is to write for themselves and not for a teacher. The whole point of my book and its title Writing Without Teachers lay in the fact that in those days, before computers, no one ever put pen to paper unless there was a teacher forcing them to. “Writing without teachers” was an oxymoron. The very act of writing was deeply tainted by the aura of a teacher.
In the early days I could use an analogy with the typewriter: teachers used to feel comfortable asking for typed essays—without feeling they had to teach typing. Teachers can demand papers be handed in, yet not graded or not even read (just demanded that they be done). Students learn more from doing the writing than from our feedback. Teachers could get the process going by simply “grading” pass/fail. They would give “pass” on papers handed in and F on papers not handed in.
I also showed them how they could improve student writing by making them break into pairs or tiny groups on the days that writing was due—and make them read their paper aloud to each other. No feedback or response at all. This process led to substantial improvement. The mouth and ear give proprioceptive feedback; mouth and ear are the principal organs for language—language in the bone.
What do you see as the contributions of a Writing Program like ours to a university and to society more broadly?
The biggest contribution is to persuade faculty in other disciplines that writing is their responsibility too. The main thing they have to do is assign it. They don’t have to grade or comment. I was able to refer to some solid research that showed that skill in writing correlated with good grades in other disciplines—even math! But I could also show at least some evidence that feedback and grading DIDN’T correlate with improvement. The only real correlation with improvement is QUANTITY of writing.
Where do you see the field of Writing Studies and writing instruction going in the next 40 years?
There seems to be a perennial temptation to “keep up to the times” and put our efforts into graphics. But my sense is the need for clear language and clear thinking. Graphics can help thinking; diagrams can highlight logic and the lack of it. But writing is the big need—and virtually all professions will require writing. The biggest eye-opener was to show faculty research demonstrating that people in all fields of employment are required to write a substantial amount. I used to joke to students: “If you hate writing, become a writing teacher. They are not required to do as much writing as in most other fields of white-collar work.”