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my thinking as if I were at the workshop, drawing on the pre-circulated materials where appropriate (but not sharing unpublished materials by the other participants).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 is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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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