The Other Story: Theory (and Practice) in the Bartholomae and Elbow debate

At the end of Peter Elbow’s response to David Bartholomae’s comments, he indicates something parenthetically that seems to me essential to how we view both arguments: “(Needless to say, I’m describing what I try to do. What I actually do at 11:30 pm when I’m tired and grouchy is another story)” (92). This other story of what actually takes place in practice interrogates just how ambivalent the process of applying theory in actual classroom and grading/commenting situations can sometimes be.  If there is room for ambivalence in how we can imagine theory being applied, then there is also necessarily room for ambivalence in how each writer stakes their positions in relation to each other.  In other words, it is possible to imagine both writers doing similar things within their classrooms while at the same time disagreeing when asked why they are doing these things.  This is not to say that this is always the case, and that there are not important differences in theory which we can more directly locate in practice, but it does suggest a disconnect, a kind of foggy area which interests me.

Elbow, in opening his response, gestures, I believe, towards this fog, when he indicates that he is closer to Bartholomae’s perspective on many points than what Bartholomae claims.  Even though ostensibly discussing points of theory, I believe it is in considering what he practices that Elbow makes these remarks.  In going on to determine the ways in which they do differ, Elbow takes up the point of what is being encouraged or discouraged in student writing.  Bartholomae claims that he begins by dismissing the author’s claim to any ownership over their writing in order to demonstrate the extent to which the author has been always already written by the narrative.  Yet he does this in order to suggest how he is different in his approach than Elbow, and I’m not sure, in actual practice, just how “dismissive” Barholomae actually is in his comments.  He suggests that he tells students that their thoughts and feelings are not their own, but it seems that this approach, if it is as direct as he implies, would encounter resistance rather than sudden enlightenment.  I’m guessing he finds a much more suggestive way of getting his point across that may in fact be similar to what Elbow later suggests: “I wonder if your own experience might have been partly caused by X” (92).  Later, when Elbow tries to explain their “most important difference” (88) he does so with the example of free writing, a practice one can hardly imagine Bartholomae eschewing.

That there are differences in the practices of these writers and teachers is evident, and not something I am attempting to gloss over here.  I am interested, rather, that they appear to find it so difficult to effectively determine what these differences consist in, and where they are sourced.


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David; Elbow Peter.  “Responses to Bartholomae and Elbow.” College Composition and Communication.  46.1 (Feb. 1995): 84-92.

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