Ken Macrorie’s Uptaught at 50

Philip Moore
5 min readDec 8, 2020
2020 photo of original 1970 book cover by Dr. Jim Zebroski

50 years ago, Western Michigan University professor Ken Macrorie published Uptaught, an experimental and pugnacious book about teaching writing. Although selling, as he later said, only 40,000 copies in limited distribution, it has had an almost cult like status among many English writing teachers through the years, celebrated for its informal style, educational critique and progressive theory of instruction.

Uptaught evidences Macrorie’s slow realization that his failures in teaching writing are actually rooted in an overall system of oppression within higher education. In this way the book is very representative of its time, with Macrorie clearly inspired by the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests and the general questioning of authority on campus and in the society at large. According to Macrorie, both students and teachers are victims of this system, trapped in the replication of imitative and non-essential prose. As a metaphor for this Macrorie points to a computer that promised to grade student writing. He called this computer Percival.

Uptaught at 50 continues to trouble existing conventions about authority in the classroom. Framing students as collaborators and the learning process as exploration rather than indoctrination or reproduction remains complicated. Considering the recent emphasis on remote learning, I wonder what Macrorie would make of Percival’s cousin, the learning management system, especially in the opportunities for promoting student writing. I find that in contrast to the reductionist utility of Percival, learning management systems may actually offer opportunities to increase student writing and individual voice.

In thinking of opportunities for writing, I am thinking about asynchronous online course design, and the kinds of activities unfolding over a week. Such courses generally put an emphasis on written discussion and assignments rather than — or in addition to — web conferencing or recorded lectures. At the same time, and as many others have started to point out, the language of online courses often renders that writing invisible, framing a post as discussion, for example, rather than its own deliberate type of writing.

The whole binary of oral versus literate is complex. Still, in terms of course design, what if we see the online asynchronous conversations — presented to us as “oral”- as writing. Looked at through a Macrorie-an frame, teachers, course designers and students would come to see posts and responses not as simulations of something else, but instead as their own purposeful way of thinking.

There are three specific ideas in Uptaught that are as applicable in online environments today, as they were in face-to-face composition classrooms fifty years ago. Engfish, free writing and Third Way — each an invented word — are worth revisiting for their usefulness in countering the disengagement felt by some in remote learning formats.

The elevator pitch for Uptaught would be: one teacher’s 20 year crusade against engfish! For Macrorie, engfish is the “Establishment language,” the kind of empty, saying something but saying nothing language students were imitating because of textbooks or teachers who favored fundamentals and order over content. I love that the phrase originates in student writing. One of Macrorie’s students used the phrase in a James Joyce inspired critique of college English. He immediately saw the value in the phrase, investing in it all of the problems with student writing. In sharp rebuke of his own field, he suggests that “this dehydrated manner of producing writing that is never read is the contribution of the English teacher to the total university.”

I have found that online discussion forums are breeding grounds for engfish. No matter the discipline, online teachers often witness — and have to engage with — uncomplicated discussion board posts and responses. Macrorie’s hyper alertness to such language inspires us to promote the concept with students in week one -both as a general topic and as related to the particulars of the specific class. For example, just what does engfish look like here? How do we recognize it in our forums and how do we eliminate it? may be worth incorporating into a first week of any given class.

As Macrorie discovers throughout Uptaught, the opposite of stilted and imitative student writing is writing that matters to them, work rooted in their interests and experience. One way to inspire this is through free writing, perhaps the most enduring of the ideas in Uptaught. Inspired by Dorothea Brande’s 1936 book (Becoming a Writer) where she encourages students to write freely, free writing frees students to think on the page. It is often effectively used as process based work, getting the writer outside the writing to see the writing (that is to say, to connect process thinking to the “real” assignments of the course).

In the online environment I see free writing as distinct from a forum post. It is intentional broad writing, sloppy, inquisitive at best and almost always generative. Applied deliberately, free writing provides three opportunities: to assess the space students already occupy on any given topic; to reflect on another assignment in the class; and to uncover tangential ideas of interest or insight that can be developed in later weeks.

In Uptaught, Macrorie reminds us that beginning college student writers are not beginning human beings. For him, getting students to work from their experience is the primary way of getting them to commit to learning (situating him in a lineage of John Dewey through Flower Darby). This emphasis is central to his third way, a reciprocal process approach stressing shared power in the classroom and the erosion of expert/novice distinctions.

Applied to online learning, the third way approach remains most applicable in course design. Since we know that student writing on discussion boards can be shaped by the types of questions we ask, special attention should be paid framing these forums as active learning opportunities: prompting students to do something with -rather than repeat- text or lecture material. Macrorie’s third way approach suggests that more and deeper learning occurs when we view our courses as inquiry, making sure to focus on student experience and reflection on that experience (including reflection on new learning). In this way students and the teacher investigate together, representing that process of discovery which is at the heart of Uptaught.

In the preface to a 1996 reissue of the book, Macrorie notes an anger to his voice. Even with his fierce critique, however, I find Uptaught notable for the hope it inspires: hope of challenging orthodoxy, hope in freeing student voice, hope that student writing could be alive, and that students and teachers did not have to wander around, as Macrorie writes, boring each other.

Even the title itself another made-up word- speaks to uplift of both student and teacher because “when the student is moving upwards, using all his abilities and extending and sharpening them, the professor is at his most powerful.” Inspired by my friend (and the teacher who introduced me to Macrorie’s work in 1996) Jim Zebroski, I wonder if Macrorie, in naming this book, was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s Uptight: Everything is Alright. There is a deep resonance between the events of 2020 and those of 1970 in higher education. Both are times of turmoil. Both are part of larger events in our national life. We need to have a wide range of imaginative and experimental strategies for online instruction as we move into fall of 2020. In this way I believe the thought discovered in Uptaught remains insightful today and worth a read 50 years later.

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Philip Moore
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I’m an assistant professor of education and director of the M.Ed program at Gratz College. I’m interested in all aspects of creativity, teaching and learning