Contributing to the University

David Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the University,” is still a foundational text of composition studies, a testament to Bartholomae’s farsightedness and his understanding of student work.  In that piece, he argues that “every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English” (60).  “Invention” serves as the principal metaphor here, a choice Bartholomae uses “to allude to rhetorical invention as it was then being imagined and practiced, particularly invention as ‘pre-writing,’” through which he “wanted to push against the poverty or the anti-intellectualism of much that was driving the ‘process’ movement in the field” (Interview 269).

This invention, then, is not strictly the invention of topos; instead, the evidence of students’ “inventing” is manifest in writer and style: the student writer tries to take on the mantle of the university discourse community and emulate voices and adopt conventions assumed belong in the work of the university.

These conventions alongside the responding figure of the writer remain in place as Bartholomae examines some of the common moves deployed in academe work.  In the context of reading a student essay, Bartholomae rehearses the ironic rendering of a writing prompt delivered by Fred Main,  “While most readers of ____________ have said _______________, a close and careful reading shows that ___________________” (Inventing 75).  The boiler plate structure is familiar to us—the form lets the writer downplay what has been said before in favor of a new reading, which Bartholomae recognizes as  “trading in one set of commonplaces at the expense of another” in order to “win themselves status as members of what is taken to be some more privileged group” (76).   To Bartholomae, this conventional form “took what felt like an existential problem and made it a writing problem, one that could be addressed formally. It wasn’t that I needed something to say; it was that I needed to create a space on the page that called forth a figure who had something to say” (Interview 274).

Bartholomae sees this liberating moment as the road to ethos.  Visible in the form but not addressed in Bartholomae’s response is the role of reading behaviors—close and careful—and on the way the writer interacts with the text.  In Main’s template, the existential question, “who am I as a writer?” is answered in the practices of the writer as reader.  But I think that establishing the writer as writer means examining what happens when the writer begins to craft an essay after the close and careful reading.

That point of reading-to-writing is the space in which students also consider what they have to say. While Bartholomae’s “Inventing” argument foregrounds the struggle to assimilate to “the distinctive register of academic discourse,” I’ve found that students also struggle with what they believe they should say.  They confront another “invention” puzzle:  finding a topic they believe worthy of college-level work. 

Curiosity, by Gerard ter Borch II, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas. Two women standing, looking at a woman at a desk, writing
Curiosity, by Gerard ter Borch II, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas.

To my mind, then, the students’ “inventing the university” expands to include both the form and the content. Their concern is evident when I’ve been informed “I don’t know what I should write about,” or when I’ve watched their faces screw up at my response to another version, “what are you looking for?” I’ll have to accept that anxiety may have something to do with a faulty assignment prompt, yet the apprehension also points to their conflation of form and content into a quest for “what the university is looking for.”  Even here it’s evident they are used to writing in reaction to rather than in pursuit of their own project and interests.

In their search for the university’s sanctioned topic, they often invent very big things.  They may take on something as complex and comprehensive as immigration policy in the US.  If they do, chances are they want to do a lot of research and write about what everyone else has said.  They will choose “sources” to (1) establish a fact, (2) validate anything they want to write, and (3) serve as a straw man against which they can use (see #2) to prove something.  In short, they don’t really say anything new; more often than not, they write what the university (or public policy) has already written.   They’ve already internalized the verb that stands for writing in Fred Main’s template, “. . . a close and careful reading shows that ___________________” (my emphasis).

The work of the university isn’t limited to a demonstration of existing knowledge.  We are charged with producing new ways of seeing things, doing things, and understanding our world.  How, then, might we invite students to do more than show what they’ve found while reading closely and carefully?

To do this, we have to invite them to “make something” of what they read carefully and closely.  I know that the charge to “make something” sounds daunting to an undergraduate, and yet a writing assignment prompt can allow for a student’s knowledge and experience without ever even calling explicitly for the student to apply her knowledge and experience to the task at hand.  To be clear, I’m not (for example) advocating for a personal narrative around, say, the topic of assimilation; nor am I asking them to argue for or against a particular immigration policy.   Instead, I’m asking them to look carefully (and closely) at what selected others have written around a topic and to clear a space in which they have something to say.

An example may be the best way to demonstrate what I’m talking about here:

In a recent composition course, I asked students to look at an essay by Richard Rodriguez alongside a story from How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez.  The work in class focused on seeing and engaging with the critical vocabularly about assimilation that Rodriguez develops in his essay, “Blaxicans and other Re-Invented Americans.”

In the writing assignment prompt, I asked students to begin the project by using the Rodriguez essay as a kind of frame for the Alvarez story, which would serve as a case through which students could test Rodriguez’s critical vocabulary. The students would begin work by looking at how Alvarez’s story illustrates and poses problems for Rodriguez’s vocabulary.  Crucial to the assignment, I thought, was making sure students couldn’t simply apply or reject Rodriguez’s vocabulary.  They had to engage with the extent to which Rodriguez’s essay could account for and did not account for the assimilating moves a character, Yolanda, makes.

In classroom work and in early writing around the essay, students found different moments in each of the pieces, and each found a different “set” of moments or gestures or dialogue in the Alvarez story that illustrated or challenged Rodriguez’s argument about assimilation. At this point, they had their evidence and had to start looking for how those particular pieces fit together.  They had to “make something” of what they saw in the evidence they had assembled and written about.  I asked them to think of these pieces as the individual points of a constellation.  After all, following Walter Benjamin’s use of the metaphor, a constellation is just what we have made of the arrangement of the stars and planets above.

Predictably, this was the hard part of writing.  Up to this point, they’d been able to resort to some familiar methods, conventions, and forms to write about similarities and differences, to paraphrase and quote, summarize and sum up.  They had already come to the conclusion that Rodriguez’s essay produced some new knowledge itself in the way that immigrants were not just Americanized, but that American culture itself changed as new immigrants affected values and work ethics and dreams of success.

Now they were struggling to find themselves in the work.  They knew they had to produce something, but it wasn’t until after the essay had been submitted that they saw that they had produced something new out of writing. One saw the limits of Rodriguez’s argument in the question of motivation—does the immigrant want to become part of the new home culture?  Another posited social class problematized the way assimilation is characterized in Rodriguez given the evidence the student found in Alvarez.  Yet another suggested that assimilation has to be publicly performed—like standing up to sing the Star-Spangled Banner at a sports event—for community members to consider the possibility of the immigrant becoming part of it.  Still another contended that a multi-ethnic family poses special problems for assimilation into a dominant culture.  These essays bring something entirely new to the table—the students’ experience—without ever making the question of their experience central to writing the paper.  They look more like the kind of work that university faculty engage in.  They find a stake in the work and make that work into something entirely new—a study of the performativity of a national identity, or an investigation that reveals complicating factors in an already complex process of assimilation and national identity.

Surely we’ve seen studies of identity in performance or read theories of national identity in our academic journals and in academic press monographs. And we might be used to seeing students develop insights that have already come down the pike.  Is that new knowledge?  In the students’ work I’ve described, I see a point at which which they can no longer resort to the conventional or to what Bartholomae calls “the commonplace.”  They arrive at a point in their writing when there is little immediately available to help them write what they want to write, and so they have to resort to what they do know and to what they have experienced and make something new to account for what they have noticed through the texts.  I think it’s through these moments that they’ve found a way to enter the conversation actively, to contribute a unique way of seeing a practice or a phenomenon or a text that has not, in fact, been approached or theorized in exactly this way.  And they’ve done so because they have a unique set of experiences, knowledge, and a way of knowing that doesn’t duplicate anyone else’s experiences, knowledge, and ways of knowing.

To my mind, the kind of work in which students can bring their experience to bear is much closer to the work we do when we contribute to the scholarly.  It’s a much closer approximation of our work than the paper that validates an existing stand on immigration law—the essay that limits the student to writing in support of or against a social practice.

If Bartholomae saw the danger in burdening students with the expectation they would generate original work, I am seeing evidence that a basic writing student can use his experience of seeing the crowd rise before the countless baseball game he has played since Little League and write himself to a moment in which he realizes that a ritual he never really marked before now makes visible a way of talking about assimilation.  By theorizing a new way to see the process of assimilation, he has invented something to say at the university and has contributed to the work of the university.