The Promises and Perils of Macrorie’s Third Way

Ken Macrorie’s Uptaught informs readers that education in the United States has been broken for a long time. Most teachers, suggests Macrorie, have either stifled their students or provided them with so much freedom that near anarchy ensues (27). The whole of Uptaught so far has been peppered with examples and anecdotes suggesting that a Third Way exists. This method presumably allows students to “operate with freedom and discipline” (27). In some ways, I feel that Macrorie has established a new and effective method of teaching. Some of his points, however, seem extreme and potentially destructive for students.

I have personally been exposed to many of the hardships that Macrorie describes and know few students who have not been exposed similarly. I have been taught by many professors who seemed convinced that the ultimate knowledge was theirs and that the thoughts of students, including those backed by evidence, were inferior or unsound. Some classes have entailed little discussion or student involvement in anything but tests and homework assignments. I used to love reading, but now I almost always view it as another task to be done. It is difficult to enjoy a novel when you have to journal every chapter or stop every few paragraphs to take notes for a paper. Sometimes, I feel as imprisoned by my education as the student pictured above.

I think the greatest strength of the Third Way is its potential to make students feel as though they are valuable members of a class. Free writes like those assigned by Macrorie seem like an invaluable way to stimulate student interest (21). Unsurprisingly, it seems that compositions comes alive when students can write about something that is emotionally alive in them. I am a strong advocate of constructive group writing reviews as well and have often found them very effective. Throughout Uptaught, I feel that Macrorie has advocated for writing in a way that is similar to how many linguists advocate for descriptivism. He wants writing that is effective and does not necessarily conform to the limitations imposed by Standard English. I think such freedom has the potential to teach students to write in a way that is powerful instead of a way that satisfies academic expectations while imposing strict limitations on intellectual productivity.

While I applaud some of Macrorie’s notions, I have a great deal of trouble understanding some of his methods. In some ways, I feel as though the examples he gives of his teaching actually depart from the principles he describes while explaining the Third Way. The writing samples provided in Uptaught are entertaining and sometimes even emotionally moving, but do the students seem “encouraged to learn the way of experts” ( Macrorie 27)? Unfortunately, I do not feel that much of the writing displayed would be highly esteemed anywhere but in communities focused on creative writing.

In my experience in places of employment, supervisors want you to produce compositions that display mastery of Standard English (which at times seems very similar to Macrorie’s hated Engfish). For example, my experience suggests that a standard operating procedure document containing as many sentence fragments and other grammatical issues as many of the writing samples in Uptaught would never be circulated. Macrorie writes that he allows students to make errors like all humans are likely to do (74). However, is this more lenient approach the most conducive to the production of professional documents on which a writer’s job may eventually depend? The pass-fail grading system described by Macrorie also sounds excellent to me as a student (94). However, will graduate schools and corporations really take an applicant seriously if his or her transcript in peppered with notations indicating a pass grade instead of letter grades? How could one responsibly calculate GPA totals comparable to those produced by other departments or institutions? Do grades really indicate very little about a student, or are they reflections of work ethic and an ability to understand instructions? These are just a few of the questions that I believe arise in respect to the Third Way advocated so staunchly by Macrorie.



2 thoughts on “The Promises and Perils of Macrorie’s Third Way

  1. kjnicholas says:

    I agree that many of the student writing samples Macrorie provides would not be acceptable in many writing forums, however I’m not sure that Macrorie is actually advocating this type of writing as the sort that should be acceptable in all professional environments. Macrorie frequently is speaking from his position as a professor of Advanced Composition. I think he might be saying that students who write from the stance of “I need this writing to be appealing to Dr. So and So and follow the formula A, B and C” are actually COMPOSING (I have no italic option in this reply format unfortunately) nothing but merely following a blueprint that doesn’t teach them anything nor produce results that differ in any way from anyone else. . . .rendering their writing utterly meaningless. If Dr. Macrorie were teaching a class on Tech Writing or Science Journalism he may have a stricter perspective on form, but would probably not budge on the need to write purposefully.

  2. chutson says:

    I’m going to be honest, I am behind and haven’t gotten Uptaught yet to read. So all I know about it is our class discussion on Thursday and what all you guys have written. That said, what I have seen so far makes me slightly suspicious. For example, our discussion in class on whether writer’s write solely for themselves or not. I’m on the stand that all writing is communicative, which implies at least some level of thought for the reader and audience. And by extension, writing needs to follow some sort of form so it can work for the writer and the reader. And I think there is still a lot of room for author individuality withing the conforms of writing ‘rules’. Each writer has a voice that will come out different from another’s, even if they are writing on the same exact subject and within the same conventions. So yes, you are writing for a person–your reader, or professor, or whoever else you’re writing for, but I don’t think that inherently equals mechanical writing.

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