Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Short Memoir About a Writing Class Without a Teacher

Last update: 8/15/2012
Note: This essay was written as my response to an assignment in the "MOOC MOOC" -- a MOOC about MOOCs.  We were asked to address "participant pedagogy" --  methods that empower students to do most/all of the teaching.

Having worked as an engineer from 1963 until 1967, I resumed my graduate studies in the fall of that year, switching from math to urban planning, my reaction as a Black American to the riots/rebellions that had flared up in central cities all over the country that summer.

But by the end of the spring semester in 1968, I and another engineer-turned-graduate-student in planning could find no summer employment. So we hired ourselves by forming a partnership called "Community Information Research Services (CIRS)" that would perform data collection and analysis projects for community organizations in the city's black neighborhood. We persuaded our university to provide us with a small grant that covered our salaries and other expenses for the next few months so that we could provide our services to neighborhood groups free of charge.

We spent most of our time (and money) that summer planning and re-planning our operation as we found few organizations in the black community that were interested in our analytical services. However, considerable interest was expressed in courses that would teach the residents skills they could use to get better jobs and better services from government agencies and public utilities. A course in writing was high on the lists of requests we received from the neighborhood leaders. We notified the local universities about our CIRS operation and its need for instructors who would to teach short evening courses in the black community. Some very competent academics signed on, but none more capable than the young fellow who became our writing instructor.

My business partner and I were fully committed to the reigning ethos of the day -- "power to the people" ... "maximum feasible participation" ... "community control"  ... etc., etc., etc. So we were intrigued by our writing instructor's innovative methods, methods that would subsequently revolutionize the teaching of writing in colleges and universities all over the country.  He proposed to facilitate the class, but would not teach it. His students would teach each other how to write by providing constructive feedback about each other's writing. He would engage their interest by asking them to write about things they really cared about. And with each other's help, they would discover that written communication required a somewhat different set of "rules" than verbal communication. He would not teach them the commonly accepted guides for punctuation, spelling, and grammar; they would discover the need for such conventions on their own.

When I asked him if I could sit in on some of his classes, he said "No" a bit too quickly. "Why not?" I asked. "Because your perspective as a planner is too structured for this kind of course" ... In other words, I had a professional compulsion to know where I'm going before I began and to lay out my path in as much detail as possible before I took the first step. It turns out that this was, perhaps, the biggest reason why I found it difficult to complete written assignments in my courses from time to time. After much pleading, I finally got him to relent. He allowed me to sit in on his classes on condition that I never said a word.

First, I'll skip to the happy ending, then back up. His methods worked. When I googled him today while I was preparing this note, I was greatly impressed, but not surprised to find an impressive summary in Wikipedia of his career as an author of numerous highly regarded publications about the writing process, how to learn it (without teachers) and how best (not) to teach it ... :-)

I have only read the first book that he published after he had taught our CIRS course. Here's a couple of highlights that I recall from sitting in on a few of his classes:
  • One of his methods was to encourage his students to write spontaneously, something that people will do naturally if encouraged to do so. He told them to just write. Let it flow.  Unfortunately, most people have been told to do the opposite; they have been told not to write anything before they make an outline, a plan for what they want to write. By contrast our soft spoken instructor sat back and calmly asked his students to write. When enough stuff is on the paper, you can go back to organize it. At that point an outline may emerge that can help you see that your thoughts might be better understood if presented in a different order. The emergent outline will also highlight important points that weren't covered in the spontaneous session. So you address those missing points ... spontaneously. And you can polish up your prose as you go along. In other words, the mere presence of a traditional writing teacher would discourage this kind of spontaneous creativity ... and students might internalize that external teacher and become their own worst critics, victims of self-imposed writers' blocks.
  • For me his most powerful magic was asking his students to write about things they cared about and to provide each other with constructive comments about what they had written. I have a particularly vivid recollection of one of his assignments. He asked his students to write something that would persuade someone to do something that was really important to them. Some of the students wrote letters to utility companies or government agencies requesting better services, permission to make late payments etc. But the show stopper was a set of four or five letters that one of the students had written while he was in prison. He had written these letters to his parole board requesting early parole. The last letter worked. He had been paroled recently, but he still didn't understand why. So the other students read their copies of each letter and gave him their honest responses, noting which words or phrases had antagonized them. But they also noted why each letter was more persuasive than the one before. And of course, the last letter had them all smiling ... including the newly liberated ... prisoner because he finally understood why he was free.
By now readers of this note who have taken a writing course in the last thirty years or so will probably have guessed that our young instructor went on to become the eminent writing authority, Dr. Peter Elbow, whose first book was called, Writing Without Teachers.

P.S. I have never suffered "writer's block" since I sat in on Dr. Elbow's student-led classes. As his students were teaching each other, they were also teaching me ... :-)

P.P.S. It occurs to me that my readers might want to know what happened to CIRS. 
Shortly after Dr. Elbow offered his course, I was summoned to the office of Dean "Z" who roundly chastised me for spending so much time on an extracurricular activity. He warned me that the university expected students receiving full scholarships, as I was, to be full-time students and to work no more than 15 hours per week on non-research projects. If I continued to manage CIRS, I would endanger my scholarship. Wow! I recall leaving his office totally rattled.

Then a few days later this same Dean "Z" summoned me to a meeting in his "other" office from which he ran the university's continuing education program for non-traditional students. (I didn't know that he had another office.) This time he greeted me with broad smiles, telling me what a wonderful operation CIRS had become, so wonderful that the university wanted to absorb it and move its courses into its own catalog for non-traditional students. Wow!!! again. First the stick, then the carrot. So I "gave" him CIRS, including Dr. Elbow's great course which was its biggest asset.

The good news is that Dean "Z" kept his word ==> I kept my scholarship ... but I continued to work long hours as a consultant in other interesting situations to pay for food, rent, and other expenses. And I also learned something about my alma mater that encourages my continued optimism about America's great universities. They are far more progressive than their critics usually give them credit for being. Indeed, they can be downright ruthless in their determination to stay at the head of the pack ... :-)

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