“Our students, however, must have a place to begin. They cannot sit through lectures and read textbooks and, as a consequence, write as sociologists or write literary criticism. There must be steps along the way. Some of these steps will be marked by drafts and revisions. Some will be marked by courses, and in an ideal curriculum the preliminary courses would be writing courses, whether housed in an English department or not.”
–David Bartholomae

In “Inventing the University” (1985), David Bartholomae builds the argument that writers are always already entering into extant discourse, and therefore they must appropriate that discourse in order to enter into it. His text is divided into three sections. The first section sets up his claim that students must “invent” the university, that they are constantly attempting to create context when asked to perform particular tasks, such as in writing. He examines a student writing sample and discusses the moves the student has made, illustrating how the student at times appropriates and at times fails to appropriate convention. In discussing the student’s efforts, Bartholomae continually uses phrases such as “a remarkable performance” and “an enabling fiction.” For Bartholomae, the student is being asked to pretend–to do something she or he cannot actually yet do. Thus, they “invent” the means to do it–or, perhaps, to fake it.

In the second section of Bartholomae’s chapter, much of his claim seems to focus on the idea that the writer is one who has been affected by extant ideas rather than creating original ideas. As such, he cautions: “Leading students to believe that they are responsible for something new or original, unless they understand what those words mean with regard to writing, is a dangerous and counterproductive practice” (Bartholomae 632). So, in keeping with the theme that students must imagine authority in order to participate (artificially) in academic pursuits and tasks, Bartholomae states: “The students, in effect, have to assume privilege without having any” (Bartholomae 632).

This brings me to my major objection, but before I make it, I must give Bartholomae his defense:

“It is, true, I think, that education has failed to involve students in scholarly projects that allows students to act as though they were colleagues in an academic enterprise. Much of the written work that students do is test-taking, report or summary – work that places them outside the official discourse of the academic community, where they are expected to admire and report on what we do, rather than inside that discourse, where they can do its work and participate in a common enterprise. This, however, is a failure of teachers and curriculum designers, who speak of writing as a mode of learning but all too often represent writing as a ‘tool’ to be used by an (hopefully) educated child.” (Batholomae 632-633)

Bartholomae goes on, describing his own approach to this issue, to say: “I don’t expect my students to be literary critics when they write about Bleak House. If a literary critic is a person who wins publication in a professional journal (or if he or she is one who could), the students aren’t critics. I do, however, expect my students to be, themselves, invented as literary critics by approximating the language of a literary critic writing about Bleak House” (634). Bartholomae insists that his students writing is not “wrong” or “invalid,” merely approximate–because he is more concerned with students learning to appropriate the discourse of the literary critic than to actually engage in literary criticism. This is where I make my objections–but I’ll come to that after I’ve finished my overview of the article.

Bartholomae does at least acknowledge that students’ own language is not a detriment, per se. He notes that “Students […] are not so much trapped in a private language as they are shut out from one of the privileged languages of public life, a language they are aware of but cannot control” (Bartholomae 627-628).  Batholomae is careful not to belittle students’ own language, but he consistently characterizes them as unprepared for the task of serious academic work–even as he calls for greater student inclusion in serious academic work. Batholomae goes on to claim that “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 or persuasion, obligatory conclusions and necessary connections that determine the ‘what might be said’ and constitute knowledge within the various discourses of our academic community” (634). I don’t disagree with this element, but I do believe that Bartholomae is assuming a false binary between what a student can do and what a student has yet to learn.

Bartholomae’s focus seems to remain fixed with students learning conventions of writing. The third section of the text focuses on examining various selections of student prose, indicating their strengths and successes at appropriating convention alongside their failures and errors. He closes this section with the assertion that “The movement toward a more specialized discourse begins (or, perhaps, best begins) both when a student can define a position of privilege, a position that sets him against a ‘common’ discourse, and when he or she can work self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but his or her own” (Bartholomae 644). Certainly this seems to describe a desirable capacity for a student, the ability to find a place of confidence and to assert a critically thought through argument. While I am critical of Bartholomae in some respects, I agree with his claims (or elements of them) as often as not.

In his final section, Bartholomae comes very close–so very close–to saying just what I wish he would say:

“Our students, however, must have a place to begin. They cannot sit through lectures and read textbooks and, as a consequence, write as sociologists or write literary criticism. There must be steps along the way. Some of these steps will be marked by drafts and revisions. Some will be marked by courses, and in an ideal curriculum the preliminary courses would be writing courses, whether housed in an English department or not.” (Bartholomae 645)

Bartholomae makes the very important point that “basic writers” often struggle the most with much more advanced matters than syntax or sentence-level concerns. He points out that the ability of a student to write “correct” sentences often has little to do with how well they perform actual writing task and thinking. As he observers, often students can mimic the forms of prose without fully understanding those forms. So, yes: Students gradually enter into discourses, gradually attain comfort with the conventions of those discourses, and we as educators must be attentive to that process and those efforts. I enthusiastically concur. Yet, near the end of the chapter, Bartholomae makes a claim that returns me to my objection: “It may very well be that some students will need to learn to crudely mimic the “distinctive register” of academic discourse before they are prepared to actually and legitimately do the work of the discourse, and before they are sophisticated enough with the refinements of tone and gesture to do it with grace and elegance” (Bartholomae 650).

So, to my objections. Really, there are two broad objections–or, perhaps I should call them complications–that I would offer. First, Bartholomae makes much (too much, I think) of convention, of making students perform, making them think and write the way that the academy–that is, Bartholomae–does. True, if one wishes to enter into a field, one is best served to become familiar with its conventions, history, and frontiers. However, there is also room for freshness, innovation, and difference. In fact, this may be the greater resource. Beyond that, our students do not all come to us as English majors, certainly not all as composition theorists. What we do, the way we do it–these need not all be their ways. Ours is not–should not be, at least, I’d argue–to teach students to emulate us. Yes, we do teach a particular mode of composition, and yes, there are conventions that come with that. At the same time, any of our students could contribute to altering those conventions–but we certainly do not treat them that way, and that’s the central problem.

Bartholomae writes of bringing students more seriously into academic work, yet his own language is scattered liberally with references to artifice, performance, and make-believe. True, our students are seldom prepared to be fully functional, accomplished literary critics, particularly in a first year writing course. However, we are not creating literary critics in our classrooms–especially not in said first year course. Students will become literary critics–or engineers, or psychologists, or dancers, or public relations experts–as the result of many courses, many experiences, and many teachers. They will do the becoming, not us. Therefore, I find it utterly irrelevant whether my students can write as literary critics–or, for that matter, whether they can write like literary critics. Bartholomae writes of “giving” students privilege and power, yet power can never be “given.” It might be borrowed, perhaps–but that is artifice again. No, power must be enacted. So, what power do we seek to aid our students in enacting?

I want my students to do real intellectual work. This exists within the context of their experience, true, but that does not mean that their work or interests are not real. The power to see, the power to analyze, to understand, to utilize, to transform, to re-create–these, I would say, are (at least some of) the aims of critical pedagogy. So, if a student cannot be a literary critic, they can still engage in understanding and criticizing literature. True, their results might not fit within the current discourse of the discipline, but if they choose to pursue that end, then they will eventually do so. Ours should be something more than merely teaching students to emulate, to play a role. For that matter, what is gained by forcing students to read Bleak House? Certainly there might be other texts that would mean more to them that still invite plenty of opportunity for them to develop their abilities as thinkers and writers. Regardless, yes–we can certainly offer students guidance in convention, and in teaching composition that is a part of what we do. Yet, if we treat student efforts as so much play-acting, then we are not taking them seriously–and if so, how can we ask them to take us seriously?


Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” 1985. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: NCTE, 2003. Print.