In his 1973 book Writing without Teachers, Peter Elbow espoused a range of then radical ideas, which have since come into the fold of composition pedagogy in an online setting. Particularly, (and as Elbow espoused his dislike of the title “Expressivist,” when referring to his pedagogical style in this 2007 address to the CCCC), the famous instructor did advocate for a looser approach to the teaching of composition (“Coming to see Myself” 520), which included tenets commonly attributed to Expressivism. Specifically, Elbow detailed the importance of free-writing and collaborative activities, as well as a distancing from the emphasis on surface-level errors. As he details in chapter 3 of Writing without Teachers, Elbow was a proponent of what he termed a “cooking” process, wherein ideas are to be written regardless of merit, and later developed through the process of revision (48-73). In his 2007 address to the CCCC, Elbow details the cooking process as follows: “Think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning – before you know your meaning at all – and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve” (“Coming to see Myself”15).


Figure 1: Peter Elbow in 2007

Free-writing is a technique easily incorporated into an online composition pedagogy. Through the use of prompts, students can participate in a structured free-writing session, perhaps designed to elicit brainstorming ideas for an upcoming paper. I teach a section of Creative Writing: Poetry I (ENG 203) and I utilize weekly brainstorming exercises roughly analogous to free-writing, in which students are asked to brainstorm on a certain prompt, the form of which is often open to interpretation, and write their ideas for a self-imposed 10-minutes. Later, students are asked to comment on this process, to provide angles of how the content they’ve generated could be used inside one of their own poems. Based on the feedback I’ve seen on the course discussion board, these weekly exercises have been helpful in the generation of ideas, as well requiring students to somewhat commit to the writing process early, and not put it off. In the organization of my course, I think one could classify the writing prompts and brainstorming activities as beginning the cooking process Elbow describes in Chapter 3 of Writing without Teachers.

Another tenet proposed by Elbow was the value of collaborative activities and peer feedback (78-106). Through interaction with each other in a workshop environment, groups of writers could engage with the text of one another and speak in their own vernacular, much the way we commonly conduct peer review sessions. In an online medium, workshops can be facilitated by the use of a discussion board, or even a collaborative blog. In keeping with Elbow’s model of a teacher-less classroom, an online instructor could, if he or she so chose, to simply observe the student interactions in such a workshop, effectively emulating the initial model Elbow envisioned. When describing this initial vision for the teacher-less classroom, Elbow offered the following in his 2007 address to the CCCC:

My vision was for writers to meet outside of institutions for learning. (Like most of us, I didn’t know of the powerful tradition of women’s writing and reading groups that Ann Gere explored). I was trying to set up open rhetorical spaces where writers and readers could meet. It seemed to me that what we need as writers is not standards and principles and authoritative judgement about what’s good or bad in writing. What we need is a naked empiricism: careful accounts of what written words make happen inside reader’s heads (Coming to See Myself 521).

The flexibility afforded online instructors is increasing with new technology. Particularly, interactive (and social) media are allowing for rich, personalized sharing of information, and the future will only hearken an increasingly blended line between the real and the virtual. Perhaps, even soon, online instructors will be able to realize the “open rhetorical spaces” Elbow proposed back in 1973.

Works Cited

Boyd, Richard. “Writing Without Teachers, Writing Against The Past?.” Writing with Elbow. 7-20. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2002. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Feb. 2017

Elbow, Peter. “Coming to See Myself as a Vernacular Intellectual: Remarks at the 2007 CCCC General Session on Receiving the Exemplar Award.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 519–524.

Graham, Katherine, Bevely Hayden, and Matthew Swineheart. “Writing Without Teachers,Writing With Tutors.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship 18.7 (1994): 8. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Feb. 2017

Griffin, June, and Deborah Minter. “The Rise of the Online Writing Classroom: Reflecting onthe Material Conditions of College Composition Teaching.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 65, no. 1, 2013, pp. 140–161.

Kienholz, Kevin B., and Gregory Shafer. “Teacher to Teacher: What Recent or Remembered Book or Article Has Been Most Influential on Your Teaching?” The English Journal, vol. 93, no. 2, 2003, pp. 23–24.

15 thoughts on “Readings Reflection: Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers

    1. Thank you for ratifying my post. I’m glad the information was helpful. I have neglected posting updates to this site, due to other obligations. I finished co-teaching a graduate course (ENG 662 Contemporary American Poetry) for the summer and I am in the process of applying to doctoral programs for the next phase of my professional education. I hope to reincorporate the process of posting to this site soon, though!


    2. Also, here is some ISBN information about Elbow’s book:
      ISBN-13: 978-0195120165
      ISBN-10: 0195120167
      I encourage you to seek it out! Elbow proffers deep thoughts about writing, process, and their intersections in the teaching of composition.


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