- 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.
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 ... :-)