On David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University”: A Composition Teacher’s Perspective

David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” (1985) is a landmark essay for most composition instructors.  I say “most” because Bartholomae’s claims are unlikely to appeal to instructors who abide by “current traditional rhetoric” (CTR), which dominated high school and college composition classes for decades.  The problem isn’t so much outdated and time-worn methods but our not being open to new methods of teaching–new methods that emerge in response to the evolving demands of the classroom.  As the NCTE tells us, old methods = static opinions = closed minds and dogmatic ways of thinking.  For a brief primer on theories of rhetoric and composition, I recommend a useful Wikipedia entry.

Bartholomae’s essay is in large part a response to CTR and another dominant mode of writing instruction that took off in the 1970’s, post-Vietnam War, known as expressivism.  This approach situates writing as the creative expression of subjectivity, personal voice, and the authentic “self,” among other things.  For various reasons, Peter Elbow has been linked to expressivism, and so a debate rages in the world of composition studies between Bartholomae’s claim that beginning writers need to be introduced to “academic writing” and the “academic discourse community,” and Elbow’s claim that writers are not essentially academics.  I believe this debate is interesting and fruitful because these opposing viewpoints allow students and instructors opportunities to explore the scope of composition classes.  Both writers are ultimately concerned with student needs and success in college writing demands.  (Elbow frequently discusses “academic discourse”; in particular, “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic” responds to Bartholomae, and it is reprinted in Everyone Can Write, Oxford UP).

Ultimately, I do not agree with Bartholomae’s argument, but I do agree with many of his points and thoughtful analyses of student writing samples.  His essay is so thought-provoking that I also examined his freshman composition reader (co-edited with Anthony Petrosky) entitled Ways of Thinking (Bedford / St. Martin’s).  I think Bartholomae’s work needs to be carefully considered for its stimulating contribution to an ongoing conversation about the role of freshman composition classes in the academic discourse community.  I think a certain kind of impulse motivates his argument, which is a desire to teach knowledge “content” rather than “mere (personal) writing.”  I see this all the time with instructors: they feel compelled to teach freshman composition as a content-driven “theme” course.  I don’t think that’s what a writing class needs to be.  In order to improve writing, students need to rehearse writing, feedback, and revision and editing procedures.  I think there’s something to be learned from master writers and artists: practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it surely doesn’t hurt.  Writing practice is severely neglected in high school and so many composition classes that I’ve observed focus on discussion of “topics” and “themes.”  Although there is nothing wrong with discussion and dialogue, or themes, we need to make room for more writing practice and the collaborative teaching of writing skills.  Bartholomae’s recommendations on teaching “academic discourse” shifts away from actual writing practice.

Thus, briefly, I don’t think Bartholomae’s recommendations address the problems that student writers have concerning writer’s block and anxiety.  Most of my students dislike English and most of them hate to read and write.  For me to introduce them to the “difficult” reading material of the academic discourse community is in many ways like pouring salt on open wounds.  The wounds don’t get addressed, rather they fester and get plastered over by immersion in knowledge content.  Then students are faced with double duty: trying to understand difficult reading material and write about it competently with their own eyes.  But the reading material is entirely strange to them–it’s outside their familiarity.  They struggle with it in addition to struggling with writing tasks.  They haven’t discovered their own writing voice yet, but nonetheless they are required to adopt an “academic” writing voice.  This seems backward to me.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t introduce students to college level reading material, but it seems to me that before we ask them to grapple with the ideas of professional writers, we need to invite them to grapple with their own ideas.  Because this is really the issue: allowing students to express their own ideas to discover what they are thinking, feeling, and perceiving as inhabitants of their own discourse communities and the various languages games of the world.

I’m sensitive to many questions that motivate Bartholomae’s argument: How do we best prepare students for rigorous academic writing and reading requirements –a world that is largely foreign and strange to them?  How do we prepare students for  rowdy and raucous debates that we feel passionately about yet are far removed from their concerns?  How do we prepare novice writers for success in our world?  Bartholomae recommends a kind of baptism by fire.  Novice students dive into the deep waters of academic language, sink or swim, and the teacher will save struggling paddlers from drowning.  The teacher will deliver the poor and weary unto salvation.  Some swimmers will find a way to take air on their own–they’ll find a way to swim to shore.  But how can the teacher save them all?  And why must the teacher play such an authoritative role?  For students to find their own authority in academic discourse it seems to me that they have to give up too much in reliance on the teacher to show them the way.  The teacher and student develop resentments based on mutual self-sacrifice.  This is not the proper model of genuine mentorship, rather it’s a model of indentured apprenticeship.  It’s a model of the capitalistic marketplace.  Hear ye! Hear ye!  Prepare the youth for the workforce–the life of the underclass–as literate proletarians!  Workforce scholars unite!  Workers of the world seek solidarity as privileged members of an “elite” academic community!  Freshman comp is your entry into our club!  “We” will stamp your passport into new worlds of discourse!

Surely, no discourse is innocent.  But must we talk like this?  Is freshman comp our way of stamping membership cards into “our ways” of thinking?  Is freshman comp a site of liberation or oppression?  How much submission do we ask of our students?  Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought the teacherly objective consists in demonstrating the values of critique, even self-critique, not merely pointing out acts of “appropriation”–how writers are appropriated by or appropriate texts.  This is where resistance to the Enlightenment vision goes wrong.  Rather than worry about textual mediation, or Bakhtin’s “dialogicism,” we need to recall the principles of Immanuel Kant’s “Sapere Aude!”  His “Dare to Know” is a call to arms for us to search the domain of reason in private and public discourse–to shoulder responsibility in using our  minds to think for ourselves–to extricate ourselves from being treated as chattle, settling into the provincial servitude of blinkered consumer lives, the routines of public tutelage.  The Enlightenment writers advocated a secular humanism that seems to be disappearing from current public discourse; they advocated the virtues of self-tutelage as opposed to “self-incurred immaturity.”

I’m not certain that Bartholomae’s analysis of students “inventing the university,” inasmuch as it underscores the transparency of appropriation, allows for self-fashioning or self-knowledge.  Really, how does “knowledge content” truly make the novice free?  Let’s recall Plato’s Cave –knowledge doesn’t necessarily set the slave free.  Rather, the slave’s liberation is an act of will… the slave must find it in him or herself to break the chains of simulacra–the chimera of “seeing is believing.”   What if we’re teaching students to engage with material entirely outside themselves, which alienates them from their own choices, decisions, and thoughts?

Bartholomae encourages students to move beyond the naive cliches and commonplaces that characterize personal writing.  Fine, don’t we all?  When we ask students to write personal essays– “All About Me”–they generate banalities: “I am fun,” “I am responsible,” and “I am considerate.”  Then they generate theses that are no more than lists: “I think I’m fun, responsible, and considerate.”  Really, as Bartholomae points out, this kind of writing doesn’t say much at all.  But students have been allowed to get away with commonplace writing in high school and in their previous English classes.  Why?  Because overly simplistic commonplace writing typically lacks errors.  If no errors, then a teacher will simply stamp the passport: “Ye may pass into the even deeper waters of academic discourse without even as much as a flotation device.”  Most of our students are “Clay Model” writers.  But this situation is as much our fault as it is theirs.

Bartholomae invites students to share in the authority that the academic institution makes available; he strongly advocates that we must teach students to acquire academic “habits of mind” which define authority.  Here it is in his own words:

The student has to appropriate (or be appropriated by) [what language!] a specialized discourse, and he has to do this as though he were easily and comfortably one with his audience, as though he were a member of the academy or an historian or an anthropologist or an economist; he 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.  He must learn to speak our language.  Or he must dare to speak it or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is “learned.”

I’m sure Bartholomae recognizes that the language of learning here sounds a lot like the language of indoctrination and oppression.  Fine, but how does the student respond?  The “Clay Model” writer does the following:

He is trying on the discourse even though he doesn’t have the knowledge that would make the discourse more than a routine, a set of conventional rituals and gestures.  And he is doing this, I think, even though he knows he doesn’t have the knowledge that would make the discourse more than a routine.

Thereby, the student operates with “a necessary and enabling fiction at work here as the student dramatizes his experience in a ‘setting’–the setting required by the discourse–where he can speak to us as a companion, a fellow researcher.”  But, as Bartholomae admits, “It is very hard for them to take on the role–the voice, the persona–of an authority whose authority is rooted in scholarship, analysis, or research…the voice of a teacher giving a lesson or the voice of a parent lecturing at the dinner table.”

We permit students their commonplaces because the commonplace is a regular aspect of our teaching.  Students listen to our commonplace lectures, our commonplace admonitions, and our commonplace English teacher myths.  As Bartholomae says, “Commonplaces are the ‘controlling ideas’ of our composition textbooks, textbooks that not only insist on a set form for expository writing but a set view of public life.”  Since most students are “Clay Model” writers, Bartholomae says that they are not so much trapped in private languages of the commonplace as they are “shut out from one of the privileged languages of public life, a language [the student] is aware of but cannot control.”   His recommendation is for students to “accommodate” their motives to a reader’s expectations, adopt audience awareness [incidently, see Elbow’s “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience”], and realize the problem of academic writing.  He dismisses PROCESS in favor of PRODUCT because it is not “the plan for writing, that locates a writer on the page, that locates him in the text and a style and the codes or conventions that make both of them readable.”

Bartholomae talks a lot about codes, conventions, “acts of appropriation,” and “making knowledge” for ourselves as writers.  He makes a lot of strong points in Part Two of the essay, which I cannot quote here due to length constraints.  His view is clear, as he says, “I was looking to see what happened when a writer entered into a language to locate himself (a textual self) and his subject; and I was looking to see how, once entered, that language made or made the writer.”  Of course, this perspective depends on the so-called “social turn” of the structuralists and the post-structuralists– “there is nothing outside the text.”  I strongly oppose this view, but I shall refrain from that argument right now.  Bartholomae’s essay is polemical, and perhaps even necessary, and it invites us to consider the ways that writers “appropriate or become appropriated” by language and texts.  I think the central concern is whose language shall they adopt–their own or ours, and whose texts shall they construct–their own or ours.

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One thought on “On David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University”: A Composition Teacher’s Perspective

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I’m doing a project for my WRT 105 class (in the high school) that is in the context of a blog post and our goal is to re-write Bartholomae’s Inventing the University. It was very interesting for me to read your perspective on this, it helped me a lot with understanding Bartholomae’s concepts (which were difficult to grasp at first). Thank you. 🙂

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