- Admitting Speech into the Writing Classroom
In Vernacular Eloquence, Peter Elbow argues that speech can be a “rich resource” for writers (4). This argument is relevant to me as a graduate student enrolled in a seminar about the political issues in teaching writing because it helps me connect theory to practice. Elbow encourages me to see the seminar’s central concerns, which might be reduced to “whose English and why,” as important to consider when designing my courses. For example, though I often think of my students as novice writers, I do not think of them as novice speakers. Rather, I imagine that they have been speaking to a variety of audiences and for a variety of purposes for many years. Vernacular Eloquence persuades me that writing teachers should try to tap these linguistic resources, to bring them into the classroom. In this way, Elbow encourages me to see each student as an expert of his or her own language.
Elbow first compares writing and speaking as methods of communication and establishes some of the benefits each brings to communication. Writing, for example, “produces visible marks that persist through time … as long as we want them to persist (or longer!)” (14). Because writing is “spatial and visual,” it can “do things that are hard or impossible in audible temporal speech” (40), such as “help people step outside their language” by creating [End Page 403] an object — a piece of text — that can be used or modified. We can also return to written texts some time after producing them, with fresh perspectives. But texts are not just about writers; they also benefit readers by allowing them “to take as long as they need to re-read and work out … complex meanings” (45). Generally, writing helps us “see language as language,” which is perhaps why it is such an important scholastic technology: writing opens a number of possibilities for students to learn about language.
Speaking, on the other hand, “carries the potentiality of fluent and automatic language — of easy communication and the exploration of thinking.” It is good for “blurting, gisting, and talking turkey” (60). Elbow notes that writing teachers already “enlist” this benefit when they ask students to clarify passages that are “tangled or opaque.” In conversation, stakes feel lower, and students can “simply blur[t] out the point [they are] trying to make”; speech, then, is “remarkably powerful at cutting through thicket[s] of language” (65). Elbow also argues that students are already practiced speakers, and writing teachers make use of this practice. For example, when teaching rhetorical awareness, writing teachers can draw on what students already know about the difference between speaking to a parent and speaking to a close friend. Additionally, spoken conversations are often more efficient than written exchanges when we need to work out complicated ideas. Imagine how much easier it is, for example, to discuss the logistical details of a surprise party over the phone than through text messages.
This comparison of writing and speaking is not limited to classroom usage. Elbow recognizes that people communicate in all sorts of contexts and for many reasons. In fact, one argument Vernacular Eloquence makes (no surprise to those familiar with Elbow’s work) is that classrooms should take a more utilitarian approach to writing. “For most people who read this book,” he writes, “speaking will seem inherently easier than writing” because “we have a cultural tolerance for spoken imprecision” (21) — one often reinforced by school writing, which tends to emphasize correctness and formality: we are permitted to “play around” in speech far more often than in writing. Elbow argues that quick, unplanned speech has a great deal to offer writing in school.
In part 2, Elbow asks readers to think of speaking and writing as different mental activities, or “gears,” that we can switch between. For example, in a job interview, we “might start out comfortably chit-chatting in [the] speaking gear” but respond to the interviewer’s questions in the “writing gear” so that we can plan, choose, and monitor what we say. Similarly, Elbow...