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Summary of Bartholomae's "Inventing the University"

[note: pages 600-601 missing]

Academic writing requires students to imagine they have the authority to speak meaningfully about the content domain to someone who knows it better. Students enter unfamiliar with the conventions of academic discourse, and are aware of it. Nevertheless, it is both “necessary and enabling� (591) that as instructors, we ask students to write in the voice of our academic disciplines.

Initially, mimicking academic prose allows students to pull off the authority to speak meaningfully about the content domain to someone who knows it better. “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� (598).

Fundamentally writing involves anticipating what has been said (in other academic texts) and what might be said (again, in other academic texts). Academic writing, then, is not about communicating fully new information; it is creating new connections among existing information.

After taking on the sound of the specialized discourse, students must try to seem as insiders with their academic audience by beginning with common points of departure (i.e. starting with “commonplaces�) before introducing new or controversial arguments.

Successful writing thus trades one set of (i.e. more naïve) “commonplaces� for another. Mechanically, successful writing is exemplified by:
‘While most readers of ______ have said _________, a close and careful reading shows that ____________.�

Level 1 Students: lack both academic “sound� and fail to exchange commonplaces (neither place themselves within nor against academic discourse)
Level 2 Students: mimic academic sound but fail to exchange commonplaces (place themselves within academic discourse, but not against it)
Level 3 Students: both mimic academic sound and exchange commonplaces (place themselves both within and against academic discourse)


I wouldn't have thought it possible to feel any more overwhelmed with the areas in which my students need help in becoming stronger writers - but after reading the Bartholomae piece, I find that I AM more overwhelmed! Perhaps that's too strong a word, but I often find myself thinking that there is no way I can possibly teach my students everything they need to know about successful writing in one semester - and this article brought up weaknesses I hadn't really thought about before.

What I like about "Inventing the University," though, is one sort of overarching idea that I can try to work into my course: that is, as Bartholomae puts it, helping my students reach the "ability to imagine privilege enabled writing" (607). I think students do see most of the writing they do as evaluative - not as a way to contribute something new, or even simply something old in a new way. I suppose in reality the purpose of many of their assignments IS to display their knowledge and have it evaluated; I still think it's a worthwhile goal, though, to help my students attempt to move beyond that.

I agree with Heather. The most important thing I took out of this article was that it was important to get students to imagine that they have the privelege to writer as scholars among scholars, and not to fall back on writing in a parent or instructor voice.

I believe B., that we need to appropriate discourse to write, but! How to get there? How to get students there? I don't think he really addresses this in a serious way. When it comes down to it, I felt like he told us to "be teachers" and "focus on the models/product."

I feel like we can take some of his observances about what constitutes progress in the student writer--and how hard it will be to bump the "White Shoes" fellow up, since his writing seems to "work" for him so well--but a process seemed to be missing from his article. How do we move students from "White Shoes" to appropriating academic discourse models? Surely, not by just showing them a model and saying "go to."

Sorry, this is about the Elbow...

I may not be able to join the discussion Sunday (and definitely not Monday), so I wanted to post some thoughts about Elbow's "Writer v Academic."

I think his "nervousness" and "trepidation" are a bit overdone (although I admit I think he's an excellent writer, and far prefer reading Elbow to B.); I think instead of some grand academic v. writer issue, we have a chicken v. egg issue. Elbow can manage to be both an academic and a writer; with time, our students can, too. But what should come first? Trusting themselves, or trusting the text? Writing in a serious, self-centered manner or checking him/herself against what's already been done.

I think Elbow's right--when we start out, it's a terrible hindrance (suffocating) to think that all the good ideas have already been taken. Better to start students out focusing on themselves, saying what they can, gaining confidence.

Further, I believe--as Elbow does--that most writers continue to inhabit dual "trust" and "mistrust" personae. As I draft, I trust myself utterly (more or less). And then as I revise or revision or throw out entirely, I mistrust myself utterly (more or less).

There was a lot in this article that was striking to me, but nothing more so than the following:

"Our students have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and they have to do this as though they were easily or comfortably one with their audience" [even though] "it is difficult to imagine...how writers can have a purpose before they are located in a discourse, since it is the discourse with its projects and agendas that determines what writers can and will do." (594)

I literally squirmed in my seat as I read that, because Bartholomae really had my number. I'm continually after my students to identify their audience (especially more so this semester, when they're working more independently on longer research/writing projects and have more freedom to select their own subject matter, approach and, of course, audience). More often than not, when I ask questions about audience in a conference, I'm often given vague answers and blank looks. And why should that be surprising? How can they know that without understanding where they, as Bartholomae, puts it, "are located in a discourse, since it is the discourse...that determines what writers can and will do"?

Like Heather, I do take some comfort in his ideas about "privilege enabled writing" -- which I take to mean giving our students an opportunity to "be" writers, even if that means "mimicking" the "distinctive register" of academic discourse (616). To put it more plainly, sometimes it seems like my students need confidence more than anything else, and perhaps what my role really comes down to is giving them permission to "fake" it untl they figure out where they "fit" and what their "role" in community will be. How to DO that, though... that's the big question, at least for me.

Reading this article, I am reminded of my debt to Foucault (or rather, my discourse’s debt to Foucault), and I concur that students must undertake a great deal of discursive maneuvering with minimal guidance from faculty (I saw this every day in the writing center). Like others, I appreciate Bartholomae’s complication of audience—it’s not as simple as “write to this audience� when a writer isn’t well-versed in the discourse of that audience.

I also approve of his call, echoing other writers we’ve read, to “demystify� our conventions. “Teachers, as a result, could be more precise and helpful when they ask students to ‘think,’ ‘argue,’ ‘describe,’ or ‘define’�(601). On the other hand, within the framework provided by Foucault and Barthes, this sets up an Archimedean point dilemma: circumscribed by our discourse, unable to see past its limits, we must nonetheless articulate its nature and characteristics. The most promising method for doing so surely, as many theorists have recognized, involves exploring points of intersection and conflict between discourses. (Again I suggest having students bring in examples of writing or transcribed speech from discourses that are familiar to them as well as from different academic disciplines.) This also works against the temptation to view a writer’s “primary� (600) or “natural� (602) discourse, and her induction into it, as uncomplicated.

Bartholomae believes that the most successful essays posit an authorial stance in opposition to the one portrayed as conventional. His argument is predicated on the idea that engaged writing consists of “continually and stylistically working against the inevitable presence of conventional language� (598, my italics). What an inspiring project! The essay “Composing Songs� sounded faintly like Barthes—even better! The author may be resisting the language of the essay topic (on creativity), but she fits right into Bartholomae’s.

Because of Bartholomae’s belief, after Barthes, that the writer is written (597), his description of successful writing seems chillingly artificial and superficial. It is, after all, simply a “stylistic� or rhetorical project of appearing to claim insider status and question conventions: “The movement toward a more specialized discourse begins … when a student can define a position of privilege, a position that sets him against ‘common’ discourse, and when he or she can work self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but his or her own� (610). My distinct impression from the article is that this work against discourse is futile, in real terms, and is actually just a savvy move within the discourse favored by people like Bartholomae.

I agree with Laura. According to Bartholomae, before our students are able to write in the codes of our academic disciplines, (this will come in part by mimicking), the first step for them is "to take on the role of privilege" that means positioning themselves against a common discourse by their abilities to establish authority. Then "she or he can work self-consciously, critically against no only the "common" code but his or her own" (610). Of course, all this is easier said than done, and will require on our part a concerted effort to encourage in the new studets self-assurance and confidence.

I really agreed with most of Bartholomae's central points, and I was happy to see him call the writing prompt write "not for your teacher but for the students in your class" (595) the lie that it is. And, in general, I do feel that most of what I as an instructor do is to encourage my students to immitate me, to set an example for them of how someone in an academic discourse thinks and writes. Bartholomae does, as Marcia pointed out, have a problem explaining exactly how we should get our students to do a better job parodying us as instructors. I think he is right to insist on the importance of questioning commonplace statements (I like to show my students when their writing resorts to cliches), but how else should we go about prompting the White Shoes student to begin thinking like an academic? A related problem that I see with Bartholomae's article is his interest in "university discourse in its most generalized form -- as it is represented by introductory courses -- and not with the special conventions required by advanced work in the various disciplines" (602). Is there really any such thing as this? I teach a composition course on contemporary public issues, and while my students learn a lot about politics, I'm not sure that I'm giving them "university discourse in its most generalized form."

Interesting comments so far---you all seem, generally, to agree w/Bartholomae’s idea that the best way to enable students to question academic discourse is to help them do so from an inside position. And, further, that the best way to help them to gain access to that inside position is to help them to imitate the sound and then critical moves traditionally made w/in that discourse. So…I’m going to push things a little here.

Bartholomae challenges some of us where we live, as Gary points out. If we ask students to write to write authoritatively to larger academic audiences and don’t spend time helping them to figure out how they might anticipate the expectations w/which these audiences will read, then we may be putting them into a compromised position. Likewise, if we’re in the practice of telling students that their ideas and voices are as valid as everyone else’s and then assess their writing on its conformity to academic standards. our assignments can be described as “an act of aggression disguised as an act of charity� (595). So, shouldn’t we just provide them with the goods rather than play catty games? “Just tell me what you want� pleas should be answer with “okay, here you go� responses. Right?

And, lest we accuse him of perpetrating a system of discourse- hegemony, he can counter that he’s doing all this with the purpose of empowering students to challenge the discourses they’re writing within. Like everyone else we’ve read, he sends the strong message that everything we do as instructors w/in systems of academic discourse can impact or reinforce systems of power. He starts w/a Foucault quote: “Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and powers it carries with it� (589). We’ve talked about this chicken and egg sequence before. Time to really look it in the face. I'll be interested to read what you all have to say about the Elbow piece---!

I think Bartholomae is pointing out one of the most interesting problems in the writing realm: how to fitting into the reader’s expectation and how to build a textual self into a subject.
I’m not completely sure, but I think that with the composition examples Bartholomae tries to show evidence about this subject, not as THE ONLY PROBLEM –or even the main problem in the writing process– but one interesting enough to create pedagogical thoughts (and I agree with Marcia: in certain moments Bartholomae looks as though he is encouraging focus on the model/product)
About those students responses “(…) show levels of approximation or stages in the development of writers who are writing their way into a position of privilege� (611) I find Bartholomae’s idea useful, perhaps because my psycholinguistic background
Personally I find refreshing Bartholomae’s note about the role of courage that anyone needs in imagining him/her self in a particular academic discourse. I enjoy the analysis on p. 609, when he concludes that the author of this paper gets in trouble because “she doesn’t have the courage to generalize from her assertion�. The opposite is often true: many writers (as with myself now) get in trouble when they generalize their assertions without enough basis thereby inventing “the university for the occasion� p.589.

Bartholomae rang a bell for me in that I had a professor who once told me something very similar when I asked him about his experience in reading undergraduate writing. He talked about his deep respect for the difficulty of writing on a subject you may know little about, and probably in which you have marginal interest, for an audience that knows more than you and has a great deal of interest. It seems to me that this is the central dilemma of student writing, or student learning for that matter. It is disheartening when you run into a former student, a topic from the class comes up in conversation, and you find that this person has retained almost no memory of something that you consider central to understanding your discipline. However, and I guess B. would agree, the fact that this former student sucessfully navigated your course shows that you did help to teach the student ways to deal with a type of social situation that will arise throughout life.
One other point which with I would like to disagree is that I think B. takes the idea of audience reception to an extreme. I think it is is impossible to know everything that our audience knows(my paraphrase), as B. states is central to academic writing. I think that we, both as readers and as writers, allow for the fact that the best we can do is approximate this ideal. A perfect understanding between author and audience never really occurs however grand the goal.