Inventing the University

We had the pleasure last year of Skyping with Bartholomae and talking with him a little bit about this article and his work in general, which can be found here.


Although I’ve read it a couple times before, it was interesting to re-read Bartholomae immediately after Shaughnessy because he seems to be reiterating similar points about basic writers 7 years later, even though her focus is on errors and his is on academic discourse.

Bartholomae’s argument is essentially that students need to learn academic genre conventions. He writes, “Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion” (403). He clarifies later that he’s not talking about invention as writing something original; rather, he argues that students must learn to speak our language, “to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community” (403). Students must appropriate this discourse (or be appropriated by it) in order to pass as members of the academic community.

However, this is difficult, and Bartholomae notes that the characteristic slip of the basic writer is when they move away from this authoritative voice (of someone whose claims are deeply rooted in scholarship and analysis) and into a more comfortable role of someone offering a lesson or advice (405). Part of this is an issue of having access to commonplaces—a culturally or institutionally authorized concept or statement that carries with it its own necessary elaboration—that allow us to interpret our experiences (405).

The other part of this is an issue of privilege:

Writers who can successfully manipulate an audience (or, to use a less pointed language, writers who can accommodate their motives to their readers’ expectations) are writers who can both imagine and write from a position of privilege. They must, that is, see themselves within a privileged discourse, one that already includes and excludes groups of readers. They must be either equal to or more powerful than those they would address. The writing, then, must somehow transform the political and social relationships between basic writing students and their teachers. (407)

Teachers can’t simply give students privilege or ignore the power relations of the classroom and the teacher/student dynamic, nor can they ask students to write for else (a common strategy and one that constructs a highly artificial writing situation depending on how it’s done). Bartholome argues that all writers must imagine themselves as “insiders” who belong within particular discourses and have been given access to speak (408). This is particularly hard, though, when BW students are excluded from scholarly projects that would actually position them as colleagues who are able to constitute knowledge and contribute to the academic community.

In the rest of the essay, Bartholomae identifies characteristic problems of BW students, grounding his claims in 500 placement exam essays. He is concerned with the “difficult, and often violent, accommodations that occur when students locate themselves in a discourse that is not “naturally” or immediately theirs (409), which is similar to Shaughnessy’s discussion of humiliating and ultimately destructive experiences of BW students. Specifically, Bartholomae analyzes these essays in order 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 unmade a writer” (409). Like Shaughnessy, then, Bartholomae moves away from a remediation model, advocating instead toward a discourse model.

He also makes similar arguments about codes and errors. That is, he argues that students not only need to write in another person’s voice but through a particular code that gives them discursive power (413). Ultimately, Bartholomae argues that we need to reimagine the connections we draw between basic writers and error. He criticizes the design of basic writing curricula for wrongfully assuming that the characteristic of a basic writer is sentence-level error, which denies the reality that “error is not a constant feature but a marker in the development of a writer” (413). Though Shaughnessy doesn’t frame her argument in this way (instead, she highlights error), they’re actually making similar points here. As Shaughnessy herself notes, all writers make errors, which indicate nothing about students’ abilities or intelligence but more about their experience with reading, writing, and immersing themselves within academic communities.

Bartholomae concludes with an argument for giving students models (which comes out in his later works more explicitly). That is, students may need to simply mimic academic discourse before they are prepared to immerse themselves in it, enacting and nuancing their own discourse (415).

In “Reconsiderations: ‘Inventing the University’ at 25: An Interview with David Bartholomae” published in 2011, Bartholomae reflects on what he wanted to communicate about BW students through this article:

More than anything else, though, I wanted to honor the moment when a student sits down to write for us, to take seriously the challenge and the opportunity, and to recognize, as I think I do in the readings of the student papers (and papers written under such dreadful conditions) that serious intellectual effort is possible, that there are real individual achievements, even under such conditions, that we often get more than we deserve, and that these writers deserve our respect and attention. (269)

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” 403-17. Print.

Bartholomae, David, and John Schilb. “Reconsiderations: ‘Inventing the University’ at 25: An Interview with David Bartholomae.” College English 73.3 (2011): 260-82. Print.


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