In his essay, “The War between Reading and Writing,” Peter Elbow accounts for the discrepancy between reading and writing in English curriculums. As learning activities, the two methods for constructing and analyzing knowledge are placed against one another in binary systems that privilege reading over writing. Another way this conflict has been framed is the privileging of literature over composition. Elbow offers some intellectual history that makes sense of this hierarchy and also provides research and evidence that demonstrates the need for change.
He claims that the emphasis on reading as a learning activity in the writing curriculum is a result of debates in critical theory that predominately favor readings of texts which seek to “kill the author.” The famous trio of critics, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida, all emphasize language, culture, and ideology over authorial intention. Deconstructivist theorists also show how meanings in texts are not stable but subject to a number of linguistic and historical/political factors. Criticism has contributed to the continuation of this binary set-up but academics have also privileged language over creativity and expression. Because we see texts as the be-all and end-all to knowledge and its construction, we’ve placed reading, interpretation, and analysis on a pedestal that looks down on creative expression. Elbow argues that students actually write better when they do not attempt develop their voice within the parameters outlined in teacher/critic frame. He continues,
When people fixate on a theoretical dictum that all writing is in response to texts, they paper over a concrete and indeed political distinction: the distinction between asking students to write in response to our texts and lectures vs. asking them to write in response to their own ideas and experience (even if their ideas and experience are made up of texts and voices already inside their heads). Even if we were to take it as our main goal to show students that they experience as their own ideas and voices are really ideas and voices from outside them, our best strategy would be to get them to write extensively about something before reading any new texts about it. That is the best way to make visible all the voices that are already jampacked inside their heads.
The assumption that teachers have (and I am guilty of this too) is that students need to be “filled” with the knowledge and wisdom that accompanies good texts – that to be producers worthy of our consideration they need to develop voices similar to our own. Students come with experiences and knowledge that are potentially silenced because we rush to replace them new experiences and readings of the world. It is difficult for us to give credence and authority to what we view as their limited understanding of knowledge. Many of us have witnessed how this is simply not the case. Once given a chance, we realize how dynamic our students’ perspectives and voices are. Perhaps they are not presented in a language and structure that is most appealing to us but does that mean they deserve to be silenced or marginalized?
Our tendency to make ourselves and our texts the center of the classroom is the result of this reading/writing binary. Elbow stresses,
The dominance of reading over writing is embedded in our language. The word literacy really means power over letters, i.e., reading and writing. But as literacy is used casually and even in government policy and legislation, it tends to mean reading, not writing. Similarly, the word learning tends to connote reading and input not writing and output. Finally, the very words academic… or even teacher tend to connote a reader and critic, not a writer. Thus deeply has the dominance of reading infected our ways of thinking.
We tend to think that reading will teach students how to write but the codependency needs to be reversed. When students are involved in the messy and painful process of writing and knowledge construction, they better understand how other writers approach such negotiation.
I know this and I think many of my fellow students and striving academics know this as well: that we learn better when we write, not when we read. One obvious reason being that writing is far more difficult than reading can ever be. I realize I too am beginning to simplify and potentially becoming complicit in perpetuating binaries. However in solidarity with Elbow, I want to stress the fact that we need to begin to balance the relationship between reading and writing. Elbow calls for a change that I think is both relevant and necessary even though he wrote this essay more than a decade ago. Textual criticism and deconstruction are common modes of approaching writing and scholarship, but we should become more flexible and open-minded about the methods we use to teach the creative and demanding process of constructing knowledge and circulating meaning.