For the past two days, I’ve been at the University of New Hampshire 11th Biennial Composition Conference, where I was part of a panel presenting on “Shame, Shame, Shame: Literacy and the Public Regulation of Affect” that explored the implications of Elspeth Probyn’s book Blush: Faces of Shame for the teaching of writing. It was a good conference in many ways, and as is my habit, I’ll blog my notes on a few of the sessions here in the next few days. One of the enjoyable aspects of the conference was getting to re-connect with Peter Elbow, and he and my friends Lauren Rosenberg and Collie Fulford and I shared a pleasant lunch on the lawn today, talking about matters scholarly and personal.
And for me, the funniest thing was seeing, yet again, how canny a negotiator of the rhetorical situation Peter can be. I recounted some of the challenges and difficulties and complexities of being a professor at a military academy, and Peter — who helped conscientious objectors draft personal essays during the Vietnam war — expressed interest in the way we sell the project of writing at West Point. I told Peter and Lauren and Collie about the ways in which West Point sometimes frames or praises academic achievement in the terminology of athletic achievement, almost as if a highly competitive baccalaureate degree-granting institution doesn’t quite know how to talk about or reward being intelligent in ways that recognize the deeply necessary virtues of smartness for our soldiers and officers-to-be.
I really liked Peter’s response. Put it in physical terms, he suggested. Encourage cadets to do interval training with freewriting: start them at five minutes, and get them to go longer. Ten, fifteen, twenty: who can freewrite like push-ups? If the physicality of freewriting is important, if that act of keeping the hands moving is what brings out ideas, why not treat it like PT, like physical training? If you can freewrite at five minutes and freewrite at thirty minutes, and if you do that three or four days a week for a year, you’re sufficiently trained and honed as an intellectual that you can squeeze out a smart and eloquent paragraph in ten minutes. It’s the habit that does it.
Writing is a muscle, Peter said. Welcome to my gym.
(Addendum: Collie recently clarified to me that the writing/muscle/gym metaphor is indirectly from Keene State tutor emeritus Josh Bond.)