February 16, 2004

Elbow to straighten out stakes of writing, Feb. 19

By Michael Terrazas

University of Massachusetts professor emeritus and writing scholar Peter Elbow will visit campus this week to speak on "Writing as High Stakes, Writing as Low Stakes: Improving How We Assign and Respond to Writing," Thursday, Feb. 19, from
4-6 p.m. in the Rita Anne Rollins Room of the Rollins School of Public Health.

Sponsored by the University Advisory Council on Teaching (UACT), Elbow's visit is meant to encourage Emory faculty to understand the value of good writing in all academic disciplines and assist them in developing teaching methods to help students improve their writing skills.

Too often in college classrooms, Elbow said, students are asked only to perform "high stakes" writing, meaning that most or all of their writing assignments are graded not only by their content but by the quality of the writing. Elbow said professors should consider asking students to do more "low stakes" writing, meaning that only content—not things like grammar and spelling—is considered.

"Teachers ask students to talk all the time in class, but they don't grade everything the students say," Elbow said. "Writing can be very good for listening because we can take more chances in writing than we can in talking. We don't have to show the writing to other people."

Getting students to feel more comfortable putting their thoughts on paper (or on computer screens, as it were) is critical to improving their writing skills. In fact, encouraging classroom "safety" is another theme of Elbow's work; students are more apt to absorb material and form their own thoughts in an environment of intellectual safety, he said.

"Safety is important for learning," Elbow said. "We have to push students, but we can push them and still create safe spaces for learning."

Elbow is the author of Writing Without Teachers (1973), Writing for Power (1980) and Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Helpful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing (2000), all from Oxford University Press. His textbook, A Community of Writers, co-written with Pat Belanoff, is now in its third edition from McGraw-Hill.

Elbow retired from UMass' full-time faculty in 2000; he joined the university in 1987. Before that he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Franconia College, Evergreen State College, Wesleyan University and SUNY-Stony Brook. He directed writing programs both at UMass and SUNY-Stony Brook.

"When students write well, that is the biggest correlation with success in all fields," Elbow said. "Even when a course doesn't ask for writing–and I think they all should–but even when it doesn't, the ability to write correlates with success. Even in science and math courses, because the ability to write and work on writing helps students work out their thinking.

"I think a lot of college teachers are scared of writing," he continued. "It's not necessarily because they don't love writing, although the fact is a lot of people have anxiety about it. But when teachers ask for writing from their students, there are all these difficulties about what's a good assignment, how to respond to it, how to grade it. It causes a lot of worry and takes time."

Which leads back to Elbow's distinction between high-stakes and low-stakes writing; if neither the student nor the teacher has to worry about grades for every piece of writing the student produces, both sides are less anxious and the product is often marked improvement in skills, Elbow said.

"My goal is to show people that they can write and have their mind entirely on their thinking, and temporarily banish from their mind any thought about, 'Is this right or wrong?' and 'Did I spell this right?'" Elbow said. "It's a skill--to actually learn how to pay no attention at all to those thoughts--but then of course at a certain point you have to turn around and pay full attention to spelling."

Elbow's talk is free and open to the public. For more information, call Donna Troka at 404-712-8704.