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This week I stumbled across a familiar 1994 essay of Peter Elbow’s called "Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” published in College English. Finding the essay again was like finding an old friend. Peter Elbow is actually an old friend, and a treasured one, but this essay in particular stuck with me over the decades for its focus on liking, and the importance of liking to improvement in writing. After discussing and dismissing ranking as completely unhelpful, and discussing, critiquing, and then offering a revised model of evaluating, Elbow turns to the concept most attractive to me in this essay, and sums up his argument about liking here:
- It's not improvement that leads to liking, but rather liking that leads to improvement.
- It's the mark of good writers to like their writing.
- Liking is not same as evaluating. We can often criticize something better when we like it.
- We learn to like our writing when we have a respected reader who likes it.
- Therefore, it's the mark of good teachers to like students and their writing. (13)
Elbow concludes his essay not by rejecting evaluation out of hand but by asking that teachers of writing “learn to be better likers: liking our own and our students’ writing, and realizing that liking need not get in the way of clear-eyed evaluation.” I think I remember this article so clearly also because Elbow talks about what happens when we don’t like our own or our students’ writing, or ultimately when we don’t like students. I have had numerous colleagues who didn’t like students and were proud of it—and I have seen the effects such attitudes have over time.
On the other hand, I’ve seen and felt what it means to like students and their writing—or to love it and them in the way bell hooks describes in Teaching to Transgress. As I reread and rethink Elbow’s article, however, I find myself concentrating not so much on teachers but more on how to engage students in being better “likers” of their own writing, and even more important, of doing the hard work of understanding where that liking comes from.
So I find myself rethinking the questions I ask students to address with every draft they give me:
- When did I start writing this piece, and how long did it take me to get a draft?
- What is still worrying me about this draft, and why ?
- If I were starting over completely new, what would I do differently and why?
- What sentence or passage in this draft do I like best—and why?
I’d now add to that last question, “What do I like about my writing?” And then, “Where does that liking come from? What influences in your life have led you to like some things about your writing—your parents and teachers? School in general? Your friends? Writers you admire? What else?”
In other words, I’d like students to probe what they like, to figure out why they like it and especially whether they “like” something in their writing because they’ve been told, explicitly or much more likely implicitly, by someone or something that it’s good and worthy of being liked.
This kind of exercise is hard to do—so students need to work with it several times before they may begin to uncover the sources of their own likes and dislikes in their writing. And they probably will be surprised to find that those likes and dislikes have developed, often unconsciously, from societal cues and reinforcements, and especially from what schools and other institutions (religious ones, for example) have taught them to like and value. At that point, they can begin to ask whether they question any of those likes or values—and why. And then, they may be in a position to reconsider what they like (and dislike) and to make plans for improving or changing their writing accordingly. And, I hope, to like it even more.
In the meantime, thanks to Peter Elbow for prompting me to think about the role that liking plays in writing and writing development.
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