(A Brief Homage to Wendy Bishop)
I was lucky to learn from and collaborate with the late Wendy Bishop, whose loss—more than sixteen years ago now—is still hard for me to accept. Wendy was a force of nature, a whirlwind of ideas about how to create better writers and better teachers of writing. Her early focus was on employing composition scholarship to inform the teaching of creative writing, but she quickly became just as, if not more, interested in ways that creative writing could bring life to expository writing courses.
Wendy’s first book, Released into Language, was published in 1990, the year I began full-time college teaching, so she has been a constant presence in my thinking about pedagogy. Whenever I encounter a new teaching challenge, I wonder how Wendy would face it, and now that nearly all first-semester composition courses in California’s community colleges are accelerated, I’m returning once again to her work for ideas and inspiration.
Always ahead of the curve, Wendy seems to have intuited acceleration’s insight that students are ill-served by what Katie Hern calls “layers of remedial coursework.” Wendy writes in Released into Language that it “is no longer effective to remain tied to hierarchical ways of thinking,” arguing:
We should not assume that “basic” writing instruction should take place at “lower levels,” while upper-level classes exist merely to sort the “best” writers into smaller and smaller cadres. Instead, teachers need to look at the beliefs, goals, and pedagogy for each of these levels and to dismantle artificial “class” boundaries that have been formed, mainly, by a relatively unstructured historical progression. (xvi-xvii)
Wendy’s punning on “‘class’” is particularly appropriate to acceleration, as one of its chief goals is to break down the class (and racial) barriers that keep students entangled in pre-college-level classes.
Another aspect of Wendy’s work that is especially germane to acceleration is her persistent turning from the theoretical to the practical. Yes, she was concerned to ground her pedagogy in writing research, but she was never content to leave an idea alone until she could figure out how to apply it in the classroom. For all its cutting-edge scholarship, Released into Language is also a goldmine of specific ways that teachers can help their students become better writers. Wendy emphasizes the importance of course design and generative writing, which, are crucial in acceleration, where students benefit from clearly articulated goals and lots of help early in the writing process, when the blank page or screen can look so forbidding.
Accelerated composition instructors often teach Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s ideas about grit, but Wendy was there much earlier, letting writers know that failure is not only okay, it’s inevitable—and temporary. “‘Take Risks Yourself’” was the title of an interview I published with her, and she was forever pushing herself, and the writers around her—both student and professional—to experiment and expand their repertoire of rhetorical moves, even if it meant falling on our faces.
Wendy loathed the Old School workshop model, with the bored professor fixated on taking down his—almost always his—students a peg or two, but she loved to create settings in which students could share their work with one another. Above all, she was keen to shift the focus “from the production of texts to the development of students as writers” (Bishop and Starkey 38).
Accelerating students are often underconfident because they don’t yet have a language for talking about when and where their writing is, or isn’t, working. In The Subject Is Writing, Wendy maintains that “a well taught composition or creative writing class should allow you to explore writing beliefs, writing types (genres) and their attributes and your own writing process. You will be successful to the degree that you become invested in your own work” (251). Metacognition, which is so essential to acceleration, was second nature to Wendy: a writing task was never complete until the writer had examined and learned from it.
Most importantly, she though writing was fun, an insight I am always trying to convey to my students. Wendy wrote all the time, and sometimes seemed to put as much passion into her emails as she did into her poems, essays and books.
I received my last email shortly before she died on November 21, 2003, at the age of 50 from complications caused by acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She talked briefly about her illness, but her focus, as always, was on the work ahead of her. Afterwards, I remember thinking, How she loved to write! As an epitaph, I think that would have made her smile.
Bishop, Wendy. Released into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing. NCTE, 1990.
---. “When All Writing Is Creative and Student Writing Is Literature.” The Subject Is Writing, edited by
Wendy Bishop, Boynton/Cook, 1993, pp. 249-260.
Bishop, Wendy, and David Starkey. Keywords in Creative Writing. Utah State UP, 2006.
Hern, Katie. “Some College Students More Prepared than Placement Tests Indicate.” EdSource, 12
Nov. 2015, edsource.org/2015/some-college-students-more-prepared-than-placement-tests-
Starkey, David. “Take Risks Yourself: An Interview with Wendy Bishop and Gerald Locklin.”
Writing on the Edge, vol. 7, no. 1, 1995, pp. 100-110.