Elbow’s invitation falls short

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?


4 thoughts on “Elbow’s invitation falls short

  1. “I’m not convinced Elbow actually teaches students much about how to write SWE themselves.” I don’t disagree with this, but he seems to be saying not that students need to know how to write SWE themselves front to back but that they need to know how to get the writing done. These are two different things: one is individual focused and one is more collaborative. So, he seems to be pointing out that people write more collectively than we pretend all the time. The President doesn’t write his and perhaps sooner than later her own speech. The tech writer doesn’t even write alone most of the time. For highly professional writing, an official paid copyeditor is employed. Instead, I read Elbow here reminding students that the writing needs to be SWE in many situations but that the surface of the text is not all and other features of dialect make writing richer and more complex. The authorship theory side of me questions whether any writing is “solo-writing” as we have so long envisioned it, but we can debate that another time : ) All that said, I, too, read Elbow with a bit of skepticism, but I think his challenge is our challenge in many ways, so I’m sympathetic and interested in how he’s working through the lily-whiteness of the privileged discourse of the classroom.


    • Great points, amyrupipertaggart. I do think–and, generally, appreciate–that Elbow really takes a collaborative view of composition, and included in that is a collaborative approach to copy-editing. I suppose I wonder how much students today need to know how to copy-edit individually, at least to some standard. It’s a question of goals/objectives. I lean towards that ability as an individual talent, though perfected in community. Perhaps Elbow has a different goal/objective in his courses. Which all makes me note: rarely have our readings addressed learning objectives. They are usually implied, but seldom stated directly. Curious.


  2. I too agree with much of your points when it comes to Elbow, and I also read most of his essay with skepticism. But, I could go on and on about the good and bad of his essay along with all of the valid points you also raise. However, the issue of Elbow’s teaching two drafts; I can see some good coming of it, if only it is also incorporated with his approach of orality. “I use many short conferences for hearing them read their papers out loud and then responding to them on the spot”(652).

    The reasoning behind this theory, is that writing a draft in ones home dialect could be spoken how it’s written i.e. the mother tongue. From personal experience, I had trouble while transitioning from high school to college and was continuously told, “you write how you speak” which I didn’t know was discouraged until I took composition. This was a turning point because it was a realization of how I was writing and how I was “suppose to write”. Once I realized how not to write, my thinking about writing changed and I became more aware of how to write “correctly” which was a transition from the mother tongue to SWE.

    I believe if a teacher/professor has the two drafts as Elbow suggests, the drafts could be used for comparison to one another (mother tongue vs. SWE). Incorporating conferences and having students read their own papers aloud as Elbow suggests, may encourage students to “fix” their own work by hearing both papers in their own literal and written voices.

    If the drafts Elbow speaks of, are the drafts that are read aloud in conference, the idea may just be genius because it then encompasses many forms of the approaches we as teachers are ultimately attempting to teach such as: prewriting, writing, editing, orality and a form of cognition that they lean and fix themselves through reading aloud to the teacher.

    All in all, I remain neutral on either approach, but while reading Elbow’s works, I too wondered why he would have students write two completely different drafts in two (in a sense) almost different languages. Then it occurred to me, maybe it’s for comparison? And maybe comparison papers are read aloud at Elbow’s supposed many conferences? But, that’s just a theory ☺


  3. I share your hesitant-at-best sentiment about Elbow’s approach, Adam, and I think you handled the shortfalls well. The last issue you identified is especially important. This kind of attenuation to race in the classroom is a call for more and better critical pedagogy. I think we see hints of a lack within critical comp theory in today’s reading as well, where Matsuda describes the comp field as a field where there’s probably some language/culture privileging going on, where the “writer” studied in “normal” composition research is always a native of some variety of English. Also, in his GCP piece, much in the way that race should be engaged over just dialects, Matsuda says that ESL comp classrooms should “tap into the rich linguistic and cultural resources that L2 writers bring to the classroom” (272). (He includes important qualifications, but it’s still a desired pedagogical goal.) The cultures present in the classroom should be acknowledged and engaged.

    What seems advantageous to Matsuda’s approach (in theory-speak) is that it has affinities with post-process. The specter of SWE exports itself (or is exported) as a “thing,” or a body of knowledge–a product (which Elbow treats it as)–that can ultimately be deployed and SEEN so as to be a member of the “in” crowd. A focus away from a body of knowledge to ways of knowing, which is what Matsuda wants to approach with the variety of cultural resources in the (ESL) comp classroom, is a productive one; intersubjectivity (which in turn is probably friends with Royster’s kaleidoscope) is the new objectivity (Kastman Breuch 112), and language-in-use creates meaning, not the standard conventions (111). Following this, the goal of a productive classroom should be to foster relations between the students if we want to most effectively create meaning/knowledge/understanding. Perhaps within this view, the most effective classes would be ones with both native and non-native speakers. If I’m on track with a positive relation between post-process and Matsuda’s pedagogical arguments, Matsuda could perhaps be an interesting avenue to explore post-process pedagogy.

    I’m still spinning my head over the relation between post-process and Elbow…I don’t think it’s a positive one. How does mastery play into Elbow’s pedagogy?


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