Bartholomae – Inventing the University

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a writer can’t write (1985): 134-65. Print.

In this foundational article, David Bartholomae explicated the challenges of first year students in adjusting to academic discourse at the college level. In his examination of 500 student essays for placement in college writing courses, Bartholomae wrote that the difference between those students labeled “basic writers” and those seen as proficient in college writing skills was the degree to which they were able to confidently negotiate academic discourse, who for most was a relatively foreign language. Of one student who struggled to take on the authority necessary to successfully use academic discourse in their writing, Bartholomae wrote the student’s essay was:

“… the record of a writer who has lost himself in the discourse of his readers. There is a context beyond the reader that is not the world but a way of talking about the world, a way of  talking that determines the use of examples, the possible conclusions, the acceptable commonplaces, and the key words of an essay on the construction of a clay model of the earth. This writer has entered the discourse without successfully approximating it.” (138)

Bartholomae argued that a key component of academic writing is the ability of the writer to “build bridges” between his point of view and his readers (139). This, however, according to Bartholomae, requires students inexperienced and unfamiliar with academic discourse to see themselves within a privileged discourse that they cannot control and that selectively includes and excludes groups of readers and writers. This issue of audience awareness, Bartholomae contended, is therefore “a problem of power and finesse” (140).

Through his examination of the student essays in his study, Bartholomae concluded that the so-called problem of “basic writers” is less a matter of sentence level errors than it is their difficulty in appropriating the particular “codes” and larger language of power and assumed wisdom in the university:

“In the papers I’ve examined in this essay, the writers have shown a varied awareness of the codes – or the competing codes – that operate within a discourse. To speak with authority student writers have to not only to speak 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 participate in and know what they are doing, before they have a project to participate in and before, at least in terms of our disciplines, they have anything to say.” (156)

While Bartholomae implied that the problem was not in the inherent defect of incoming college students, but the expectations the university community places on them to use codes and prior discourses that they have not yet had time to learn, he did not question necessity of these expectations or the role of administrators and educators in perpetuating these expectations. Instead, Bartholomae suggested that students may 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” (162). He takes a functional literacy approach to writing pedagogy in which academic literacy is a tool (Selber 2004) and practice using it or revision makes perfect.

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