David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University”

I first read this article during my second year of teaching composition and remember thinking how important this essay was for understanding the complexities our students must negotiate when writing for the first time in an academic community. My second reading of this essay created a similar response. I think, in fact, this essay should be required reading of 670. In “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae makes a number of interesting points which are quoted below:

A student has “to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline, on the other hand.”

“It is very difficult for a student “to take on the role–the voice, the persona–of an authority whose authority is rooted in scholarship, analysis, or research.”

In academic writing, a student “must assume the right of speaking to someone who knows more about [a topic than he or she does], a reader for whom the general commonplaces and the readily available utterances about a subject are indadequate.”

“All writers, in order to write, must imagine for themselves the privilege of being ‘insiders’–that is, the privilige both of being inside and established and powerful discourse and of being granted a special right to speak.”

“What our beginning students need to learn is to extend themselves, by successive approximations, into the commonplaces, set phrases, rituals and gestures, habits of mind, tricks of persuasion, obligatory conclusions and necessary connections that determine the ‘what might be said’ and constitute knowledge within the various branches of our academic community.”

“By trading in one set of commonplaces at the expense of another, [successful student writers] can win themselves status as members of what is taken to be some more privileged group. The ability to imagine privilege enable[s] writing.”

“As [David] Olson says, the writer must learn that his authority is not established through his presence but through his absence–through his ability, that is, to speak as a god-like source beyond the limitations of any particular social or historical moment; to speak by means of the wisdom of convention through the oversounds of offical or authoratative utterance, as the voice of logic or the voice of the community.”

“To speak with authority they have to speak not only in another’s voice but through another’s code; and they not only have to do this, they have to speak in the voice and through the codes of those of us with power and wisdom; and they not only have to do this, they have to do it before they know what they are doing, before they have a project to participate in, and before, at leart in terms of our disciplines, they have anything to say.”

Sounds pretty tough, doesn’t it?????? It does to me, at least.

As Bartholomae points out, students have such a difficult time entering the academy because they have a difficult time establishing their ethos for an audience that has more knowledge than they do, obides buy conventions and commonplaces that are “inside” knowledge, and demands that students work “within and against a discourse.”

What is interesting to me here is that freshman/undergraduates are not the only ones who face such challenges. As a new graduate student here at CCR, I am facing the same struggles. Everyone knows more than I do; I am accutley aware of an “inside” knowledge I must tap into; and I feel expected to work within and against not only one discourse but a multiplicity of discourses that make up our field.

As of late, I have really been feeling lost. I have no idea who I am as a scholar. I feel utterly overwhelmed by the size and interdisciplinary nature of our field, and I feel intimidated to speak [despite my constant voicing of opinions in class] within a discourse much less against it considering my subject position as a nascent scholar. These feelings were only compounded as I read through scholarship on transnational feminism yesterday and when I went to the Feminism and War Conference this morning. As I was sitting in the workshops, I could not help but feel like an outsider. Here was a group of amazing scholars and activitists speaking in a coded language that I can only pretend to fully grasp and there I was as a want a be, fully engaged, but also fully aware of my lack of experience and direct knowledge in that field. I could not help but feel exasperated at the time and energy it will take me to learn the discourse, theory, and background to ever be able to speak with authority on the topic of transnational feminism and rhetoric.

At the end of his article, Bartholomae suggests we begin to look at the product of our students’ writing for indications at the where are students are at in their composing process within a text and a society, a history, and a culture. I think he is right. I think we should also look to our student’s oral and written responses to our pedagogy, (I am thinking of Trish’s students’ responses to issues of race and Tanya’s students’ difficulty with hypervisibility and my own students’ recent defenses of racism in the name of freedom of speech) to see where they are at in their process to consciousness. I think we often get frustrated with our student for their “outside the university” views and understanding when we really need to understand the complexities they are dealing with. Understanding how students must invent the university in both their writing and their thinking will help us teach with more empathy and patience. As a newbie to our own field, I would only hope others would treat me the same.



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11 responses to “David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University”

  1. Eileen E. Schell

    I agree with you, Laurie, that this article should be required reading for all in 670 and for all that teach for that matter. What we ask students (undergrad. and grad.) to do in approximating academic discourse is very difficult, and it takes time. It’s not an overnight thing. In essence, we want people to swim with/in the discourses of the academy right away. We basically throw our students in the water and expect them to start paddling–the time-worn “sink or swim” mentality. Of course, we can provide help and advice and support along the way, but as you show in your careful reading of Bartholomae, there is a lot going on as students try to establish an ethos in relation to a more experienced, well-versed academic audience.

    As for the graduate school piece of your response, the time-worn quotation about the “parlor” from Kenneth Burke comes to mind. You probably know it. He addresses the way in which intellectual conversation is like entering a parlor where the conversation has been going on for some time. You come to the conversation as it is occurring in the middle. Eventually after listening to the debates and interactions, you dip in your oar and become part of the conversation. This sounds great, but dipping in is the problem. Where to dip in and under what conditions? I guess my metaphors are all water-based tonight: rowing and swimming.

    I think that even though grad. school presents an identity crisis moment (in more ways than one), I think it poses the moment of the parlor conversation–you’re hearing a new conversation or one in a different key. The listening will eventually bring about some ways to participate. The problem is, of course, the question of time–the time needed to learn the discourses and rhythms of a particular conversation. The time needed to feel like you’re enough in the mix that you can participate. The discomfort that comes with being less attuned to particular conversations, the struggle to try to figure out what is going on, exactly.

    Bartholomae and his collaborators at U of Pittsburgh worked to compile a “basic writing” curriculum that let basic writers in on the academic conversations and helped them find a way in. The question is, of course, did it really work? How successful was it when adopted elsewhere (as many did)?

  2. Yes Laurie, I feel the same exact way as both a teacher and a grad student. Yet, I find more frustration in the teaching aspect, as I automatically associate my students’ struggles with joining the academic community to my (weak?) pedagogy. Although I’m aware of the difficulties that confront freshman, I wonder what I can do to help them join the conversation in a more affective and holistic way. As I mentioned last week (and what you alluded to in your post), I spent three weeks helping my students work through the complex concept of hypervisbility. Just when I thought my students had grasped the idea, I found out that many of them still didn’t understand. I immediately blamed myself. What did I not do (or do) that caused this confusion? How could I have explained the concept in a better way? Or better yet, what heuristics could I have used to enable them to figure out for themselves the concept of hypervisibility? Needless to say, I felt like a lousy teacher. Yet, I think Bartholomae’s article alleviated much of my self-imposed shame and guilt; he reminded me that academic work is DAMN hard, and perhaps my students’ difficulties weren’t a direct reflection of my pedagogy, perhaps it was just a reflection of the difficulty everyone has in entering into a foreign conversation.
    Tomorrow my class is examining sample hypervisibility papers from previous SU students. Equipped with Bartholomae’s wisdom, I’ll leave the frustration at home, and attempt to slowly and gently ease them into a chaotic and complex conversation. Hopefully they’ll realize their essays, like the previous students’ essays, will be a contribution to the conversation and just as important as anyone else’s.

  3. I’d love to learn more about that basic writing curriculum that was established at U of Pittsburgh. I wonder that if we made the acclimation to academic discourse the primary focus of our first-year composition courses (and by saying that, I mean let the students know that’s what we’re doing), would it work? Would we be neglecting other aspects of the multifaceted course that we teach?
    Laurie – I read Bartholomae my first semester teaching as well, and it really made me think of what I was doing in a brand new way, a way that I continue to think about as I’m standing in front of my classroom or grading a stack of papers. Adopting academic language is hard – it is like learning a second language. It takes awhile to use terms fluidly and toss around names and ideas like a pro. Until then, students have to “imagine for themselves the privilege of being ‘insiders’–that is, the privilige both of being inside and established and powerful discourse and of being granted a special right to speak.” Sometimes, that imagining makes you feel like you’re being dishonest – that you’re a fake and your ideas are fake and that any time someone says, “Good idea, Laura!” they’re just being nice. Right?
    That’s how I felt in my first graduate comp class at UNH. One class, we had to go around and announce our seminar project, and after I described mine and got some positive feedback (“That’s interesting – can’t wait to read it!”) I thought that they were just being nice because I was seven months pregnant. 🙂
    And I have that “identity crisis moment” that Eileen speaks of all the time. But then I must remind myself that I am here for a reason. I am here because I am passionate about my ideas about learning, teaching, and the world, and that studying them through the lens of composition and rhetoric is my way of making them known and enacting them in the world. And the same is for you, Laurie.
    So let’s enter that parlour and try to weave ourselves into the conversation. I hear they have some pretty good cookies.

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  5. espressomysoul

    I wonder if any of you still check this blog. I am a new graduate student teaching in my first semester and I just had the same conversation with a professor–lost, drowning, identity crisis. I am reading Bartholomae and perhaps it is divine intervention that led me to this page as I was looking up interpretations and responses to his readings.

    I wish I knew where the original poster ended up in her graduate career. . .

    • Anonymous

      Hi Espressomysoul. I am still in graduate school, my fourth year. I can tell you the feelings that I expressed in the original post do subside as you learn the discourse and become familiar with conversations in our field. As you become invested in certain conversations and committed to working on a dissertation project, I have also found an identity that I can hold on to…at least for the time being. Grad school is about coping, to a great extent….learning how to be productive in a stressed environment, learning how to forge ahead when you aren’t 100% confident, learning how to read so you can absorb information quickly but deeply….I think the identity crisis we feel as we enter school is ultimately a good sign…it shows the we are willing to be open to considering other ways of knowing, thinking, being…How are you doing???? Where are you in school???

      • espressomysoul

        Ahh, coping. Now someone tells me! I am nearing the end of the semester with more work due than days remaining in the semester itself. I am trying to look forward while I find myself re-evaluating my future. With that said, I attend Florida State University. Thank you very much for responding to my post. I really needed to read that at 12:37 AM when everyone else I know is asleep and I am trying to make meaning of composition theory 🙂

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  7. nate mindham

    I agree 100%. this article is rediculously hard to understand and to comprehend. Im a freshman in college and we are reading this in an English 101 class.

  8. Beth

    You helped, all of you. I struggled with the article feeling like an outsider until I realized that I was and wasn’t. I have taught first year composition for several years and am still learning what it means to be a teacher, a learner. I know that the difficulities I face with understanding and clarity are not that different from those of my students. When I can recognize that we are all in this writing expereince together, I no longer have to be the “great teacher” but can join my students as we learn each other’s languages. Thank you.

  9. Anonymous

    i found it interesting but difficult to read as well.

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