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

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

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.

“Um…did I do something wrong here?” Responding to Student Writing

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

In responding to Peter Elbow’s “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” I’d like to begin with an anecdote of my own.  After a class in which I had for the first time handed back some low stakes writing to students with my comments, a student approached me with a look of concern on his face.  “Um, I was wondering about these comments” he said.  “OK, what can I help you with?” I responded.  “Well, I mean, did I do something wrong here?”  I was somewhat surprised.  My comments  (all two of them) had tried to interact with the student’s thoughts, suggesting further directions he might consider.  When I explained this to the student, he seemed relieved, and we went on to talk about possible directions for his paper.  Yet I couldn’t help feeling that his relief was probably a result of his grade not being effected and that my comments had failed to achieve their purpose all the same.

It is little wonder, then, that Elbow’s essay was especially interesting to me.  I found myself in near total agreement with his position on writing comments, and appreciative of his recognition that writing good comments was both more important and more difficult than often assumed.   Elbow’s breakdown of different levels of commentary is a helpful and practical way of thinking about and practicing responding to both low and high stakes student work.  His emphasis on supportive responses and use of simple cues (such as the straight and squiggly lines) provides me with a model which I can productively use. By providing several examples of good comments, Elbow illustrates how the theory works in practice, which is again very helpful, as I can intellectualize his points without necessarily knowing what a good comment will actually look like.  His suggestions for practical application I also found very useful, such as forward looking comments on final drafts, reflective cover letters, and refraining from comments on a first reading.  I hope to fruitfully employ all of these suggestions.

One thing Elbow does not mention, but I believe would be useful, would be an explanation to my students as to how and why I am commenting on their papers, and how my comments might differ depending on the type of assignment I am commenting on.  This way, students would have an idea of what to expect, and how they might use these comments to further their work.  Perhaps this would be one way, along with writing better comments myself, of establishing a more firm writer/reader relationship which many of my students are only beginning to get a feel for.  And perhaps, instead of that student worrying that comments equal a failing grade, I might, on occasion, have that student walking away thinking about what he might write next.


Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” New Directions for Teaching and     Learning 69 Spr 1997: p5-13.

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Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

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