I appreciate the care and creativity with which Peter Elbow approaches “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistakes,’ ‘Bad English,’ and “Wrong Language.’” In many ways, I want Elbow’s strategy to work. His approach seeks to thread the needle, inviting both an openness to the full, lived experience of the learner, and an acceptance of the need for students to access the “power and prestige” of SWE (641). And yet, I cannot quite see Elbow’s approach going mainstream as it falls short in several areas.
First, though Elbow nods at one point that the change from nonmainstream dialect writing to SWE may “need more than just copy-editing,” he does not seem to teach, well, “more than just copy-editing” (649). Elbow grades the quality of the final copy-editing as a yes/no, accomplished or not accomplished assignment. And yet, he seems actually to teach very few copy-editing details. Instead, students practice reading aloud and, somehow, hear their mistakes floating through the air. They work in groups. They discuss ways to find friends (sometimes even paid) to read their papers and correct errors. While these strategies may lead to final drafts largely free of error, I’m not convinced Elbow actually teaches students much about how to write SWE themselves. Instead, students engaged in this method will have leaned on multiple learning communities—not all bad, of course—but when met with solo writing tasks these students may be up a creek without a paddle (or…assigned a writing task without copy-editing partners).
Second, Elbow’s approach does not investigate the resource that oral genres might bring to the nonstandard vs. SWE question.
…the changes in rhetoric and thinking needed for writing college essays are difficult not because the home dialect is a different dialect but rather because the home dialect is an oral dialect (655).
I’m struck, then, that Elbow’s approach does little with this important claim. He does not experiment with speeches, dialogue, music lyrics, or poetry. He does not suggest oral composition techniques with tape recorders (essay printed in 1999, late Walkman era?). Instead, his writing courses seem to privilege several formal essay assignments and the techniques he teaches move immediately from the more oral dialects to written language. Relatedly, it strikes as a bit odd that some major essays would allow two final drafts, “one in correct SWE and one [in] the best form of the student’s home dialect” if the dialect is primarily oral (663).
Third, by addressing the question whether Elbow is simply a “‘well intentioned white liberal’ with a sentimental attachment to other dialects” he admits that a friend described his proposal as “lily white” (664). Elbow nods, however briefly, to the fact that he is a white professor, but then quickly moves back to focusing on what he thinks is the substance of his argument. Race in the American classroom, however, cannot be ignored.
White male faculty members, to a person, teach with a power, privilege, and hidden biases that they must admit and address. A teaching strategy that approaches nonstandard dialects without dealing with how white professors engage race in their classroom—not dialects but race—skirts over the main issue. I fear neglecting racial dynamics would doom even the best laid-out writing strategy.
In conclusion, Elbow’s piece presents as a noble approach to a perennial problem of nonstandard English in a world that privileges SWE. Though well-intentioned, the essay falls short.
Question: Have you identified other areas for which the piece falls short? Or, alternatively, do you envision Elbow’s approach as ready for implementation?
Question: What nonstandard versus standard English questions do writing teachers encounter at NDSU?