Friday, December 14, 2012

Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing by Peter Elbow

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. New York: Oxford U P, 2012. Print.

A familiar name in Rhetoric and Composition since the 1970s, Peter Elbow appears to intend this lengthy book as his final work.  Even if he doesn’t intend it to be his magnum opus, Vernacular Eloquence certainly reads that way, as he seemingly has crammed in every bit of knowledge about writing he has into the book.  I doubt many of you will have the patience to get through this entire tome, but, in its many pages, Elbow has some good ideas here worth discussing, so I will point out the specific areas of the book that you might find most useful.  His major argument is that speech can be useful for writing in a number of ways, an idea that we certainly can use to help our students.  For example, if your students have trouble expressing themselves clearly, ask them to read their writing aloud.  Often, the ineffective portions will stand out and be easily corrected.  This won’t work in all cases (the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to writing as it applies to nearly everything else), but it will help some students improve their phrasing and syntax, as well as catch some obvious word usage misfires and other mistakes.  For that alone, it’s worth doing as part of the writing process.  In the book, Elbow explores at length the many benefits of speech for writing, which go far beyond smoothing out phrasing.

Other useful bits of the book include Elbow’s explanation of his own writing process, which might be useful for others to emulate (208); his discussion of the split between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation styles, which might explain why various instructors enforce very different approaches to punctuation and how students get confused as a result (259); his commentary on how the fear of being judged inhibits people’s writing abilities (325), his reference to how using Black English in a writing course can help African-American students succeed in college overall (333); his critique of how certain features of student writing such as insisting that essays “announce their thesis in the first paragraph” aren’t really representative of true academic writing (which is, after all, what we’re supposed to be teaching them—students already know how to write in general, even the ones we consider bad writers, or they couldn’t have made it this far to begin with) (346); his suggestion that policing “proper” grammar has much more to do with social class and gatekeeping than it does with communication and language (354); and his reflection on how freewriting has come to be accepted by the academy over the years (391).  Elbow’s book contains a wealth of wisdom, but reading it is a bit like panning for gold.  I hope I have pointed out where you are more likely to strike a mother lode.

The book is available in our library.