I found the Elbow piece to be incredibly useful and important, and I am thinking about adopting many of his suggestions in the future. However, I approve of his thoughts in a fairly uncomplicated way, so I will not take his major considerations as the subject of this post. Instead, I’d like to discuss the flipside of his meditation on “liking” – namely, disliking – in conjunction with “The Jonas Incident.” Elbow applies the caveat to his argument on liking that he thinks we probably need permission to occupy the affective domain of disliking our students and their work from time to time, though in this piece, he has clearly stopped short of fully theorizing that claim. It seems important to me, though, and it seems to apply directly to something like Anson’s incident, wherein a student might produce something that the instructor is personally repelled by for whatever reason. The Jonas incident has caused a fair amount of angst on the part of the instructor in terms of grading, and the instructor is unwilling to reward for technical execution something so deeply offensive.
In order to deal with this conundrum, I think we can simply take Elbow’s thinking about liking in the inverse. For Elbow, liking is a useful feeling that allows him to train his students to go toward that which is already good in their writing, even if it is only a kernel buried in what is otherwise a big mess. He advocates instructors training themselves to actively seek out something to like and encourage in student writing. He is able to advocate this because he uncouples liking from the evaluation of “goodness.” He allows himself the possibility, and even the goal, of saying, “This is terrible, but I like it.” I am positing that through a similar type of uncoupling, we can also say (perhaps internally), “This is good, but I hate it.” The benefits of such an ability are directly related to the benefits of its inverse. When Elbow communicates to a student that their work is bad, but he likes it, he encourages the best part of the student’s thought and uses that encouragement to motivate the student to execute their work in a way that does their idea justice. If Cynthia were able to be similarly honest about the mismatch she sees between her reactions to Jonas and her evaluation of his methods, she might be able to encourage the kind of writing process he has pursued while simultaneously allowing herself the freedom to discuss her intellectual and personal objections to the piece through a more substantive conversation about the paper’s content. None of the methods for dealing with “Jonas,” neither the ones tried by Cynthia nor those suggested by her colleagues, involve an actual discussion between instructor and student about the basis for her negative response.
It seems that there has been an assumption on Cynthia’s part that such “disliking,” or in this case perhaps more accurately “disagreeing,” is invalid – as invalid as simply “liking.” However, I think we can benefit from more fully trusting that feeling and utilizing it. What would a conversation between Cynthia and Jonas about why she disliked his piece looked like? I think it would have required a much more considered response to his work than she initially offered, just as finding a way to explain our “liking” does. However, Cynthia’s reaction is not without basis in rhetorical/compositional strategy, even if Jonas is, on a surface level, doing what he needs to do for the purposes of her course. Racist thinking is not just morally wrong: it is also illogical. Racist rhetoric is not only appalling: it is also ineffective in a university setting. I think it’s fine for Cynthia to trust her instinct and point out exactly where the Jonas argument fails while simultaneously allowing herself to fairly evaluate what he has effectively accomplished.
However, it is possible for me to imagine a different kind of paper, one dealing with a topic the instructor had similarly strong feelings about, but which was based in logic less objectively unacceptable than Jonas’s. In such a case, if the instructor has a negative reaction, but the paper is still well written, Elbow’s argument is even more useful. If the phenomenon of “disliking” is coloring the instructor’s evaluation of the paper, it becomes even more important for her to be able to separate that reaction out from her evaluation, especially if we do not think of our role is that of guiding students toward social values we consider to be correct. It also allows room for the instructor to enter into a critical discussion about content without faulting the student in terms of evaluation, which feels critical to me.
Finally, I want to point out that as I advocate for a more open self-knowledge of our own disliking, I do so while agreeing with Elbow that this should work alongside a cultivation of liking. The two can, and I think, almost always do, exist side-by-side. I think we can both connect evaluation to more concrete criteria and also allow ourselves to express and discuss affective experience, even when it does not coincide with evaluation.