Sunday, June 2, 2013

In Which Peter Elbow Puts It Into Words For Me

I was introduced to Peter Elbow by my friend and writing mentor Melissa Madenski in the form of various photocopies of chapters from his books.  Then I had the good fortune to acquire one of his books (I think Allen found it, among others, in a free pile or a garage sale).  The book is called Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process.  I've been skimming through it tonight as a hapless attempt to procrastinate on grading student essays, and I came upon this passage, which summed it all up beautifully for me.

"It is no bed of roses for teachers either.  As a teacher I am a slave reader.  I must read every piece to the end.  I must say to every student those magic words that every writer wants to hear, 'I couldn't put your writing down,' only I say it through clenched teeth. Even if some of the writing is enjoyable, I can't really read for enjoyment when I'm not free to stop reading.  I can't just sit back and be enlightened or entertained, I must look for weakness and mistakes.
Inevitably I improve.  But students don't improve with me.  That is, each year I get better at finding weaknesses and mistakes, but each new batch of students is just as unskilled as last year's batch.  Thus, every year I find more mistakes and weaknesses per page...And yet I cannot do what every real reader can do, namely, say 'The hell with you' or 'That makes me furious, I want to punch you in the nose,' and throw it in the trash.  I must continue on to the end and then try to write a comment that will be helpful. And I mustn't express to the student the annoyance that I feel--sometimes the fury.  Is it surprising if these feelings sometimes get through anyway?  Or that I am not always as helpful and supportive as I ought to be toward these creatures who cause me weekly agony?
In short, teachers cannot easily give their real reactions to the writing of their students because their real reactions are usually too critical and sometimes unprintable.  They know that their students cannot handle or benefit from a mirror which shows so devastatingly every single weakness and mistake.  Therefore since teachers cannot communicate to students what it actually feels like to read these words, and since there is no one else who reads these words, the student never gets the experience of learning what actually happens to a real reader reading his words.  He gets only the conclusions of a skilled cataloguer of weaknesses and (one hopes) strengths." (p. 224-225)

Now, this may sound horribly harsh. Realize that I did take it out of context; it was embedded in a chapter on how hard it is to be a student who must write for teachers and how this can be injurious to a writer.  And I often do enjoy reading student work, and I often enjoy commenting on it because I am trying to have a conversation with the student in which I earnestly implore him/her to exert him/herself, praise him/her for what has been accomplished, and make suggestions for later. But I will be honest: there are some pieces of writing that I absolutely want to throw on the floor and yell, "How dare you waste my time with this!!!" or some variation on it, because I know that the student was thinking, "How dare Mrs. Cook waste MY time by making me write this stupid essay!"  and the whole thing comes through loud and clear in their work (or lack of work).  And then there are the essays which I find very hard to comment upon because I don't know what to tell them to do to improve (these cases are rare but quite perplexing).  Obviously, the pieces of writing are not perfect; but what do you say to a student who is at the apex of 8th grade writing? Do you tell them to try to approach the apex of sophomore writing?  And what IS good writing anyway?  Seems to me that it falls into the category of "I know it when I see it," which is really hard to teach.  There are many wonderful math teachers out there who once struggled mightily with math as a young person.  Are there many wonderful writing teachers who once hated to write?

Well, well, enough reflecting.  There are dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and of course, papers to grade.

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