Believing and doubting workshop

This week, for family reasons, I had to withdraw from a workshop led by Peter Elbow on “The Believing Game and its many Ramifications.” Participants pre-circulated autobiographical introductions and some writing or thinking that they wished to build on during the workshop. I decided to use the week to develop my thinking as if I were at the workshop, drawing on the pre-circulated materials where appropriate (but not sharing unpublished materials by the other participants). I set myself the challenge of using believing as well as doubting when I was puzzling over my own thinking, writing, teaching, and engagement.

Some background:
Peter Elbow has been writing about the workshop topic since the appendix essay about it in his 1973 book, Writing Without Teachers. A widely-cited article is Elbow, P. (1986). “Methodological doubting and believing: Contraries in inquiry,” in Embracing Contraries. New York: Oxford University Press, 254-300. A more recent exposition of his views is “The Believing Game or Methodological Believing,” in Journal for The Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 14 (Winter 2009): 1-11.

Where I met Peter and where methodological believing fits in. In brief:
My first full-time college teaching position in the mid 80s was at the undergraduate college of the New School in NYC. One course was endowed with a writer-in-the-classroom, Greg Tewksbury, a Frierean, who contributed to the classroom activities something from Writing with Power (about freewriting?). I continued to use the handout without tracking down the source until after I met Peter at a workshop in early 90s for college teachers. I have assigned the book (especially chapters on Sharing) ever since.

Fast forward more to the late 90s and I’m preparing to co-teach the core Critical thinking course in the graduate program where I still work. Past syllabi included the 1986 reading by Peter on methodological believing. I invented a class activity on this (before then the essay had only been discussed not practiced; see and emailed the results to Peter. From my email archives, his response:
“I’m excited to hear what you’ve been up to. I feel very ashamed that I’ve not done ENOUGH of exactly this kind of concrete, focused activity. I need to hear more from the likes of you. And I need to put more attention on it–instead of some of the day to day stuff I’m doing–because in the long run believe/doubt may be the most important area with the most far reaching implications.”

Alas, I have not taught that course again but I think I have done some concrete activities and some less than concrete that bear on the issues.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

2 Responses to Believing and doubting workshop

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Designing a solitary workshop (parallel play) to the attendees sounds intriguing. I;m curious what kinds of structured belief activities or reflections you have tried. Did you modify the proposal-counterproposal exercise to work with a doubt statement first and then statement of belief or is there something else like a set of 5 What Ifs or 5 Why nots instead of the 5 Whys reflective activity?

    It makes me think when you say “believing game” so I’ll look at Elbow’s ideas some more. If belief is a game (reminding me of Loli’s thesis project), then what are the ‘rules’ and roles? Hope you have a good rest of the week with family, thank you so much for taking time to share.

  2. Pingback: Critical thinking, Creative thinking: An ongoing journey (first project for believing and doubting workshop) | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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