Inventing The University Essay


David Bartholomae is a Professor of English and the Charles Crow Chair. He received his PhD from Rutgers University in 1975.

His primary research interests are in Composition, Literacy and Pedagogy, although his work engages scholarship in Rhetoric and in American Literature/American Studies.

His most recent book is a collection of essays, Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching (Palgrave Macmillan, hardcover; Bedford/St Martins, soft cover, 2005). An early book (with Anthony Petrosky), Facts, Artifacts, Counterfacts: Reading and Writing in Theory and Practice (Heinemann, Boynton/Cook: 1986) is still in print and still part of the professional conversation on Basic Writing. With Jean Ferguson Carr, he is the editor of the prize-winning University of Pittsburgh Press Series, Composition, Literacy and Culture.

With Anthony Petrosky, he is the editor of The Teaching of Writing: The Eighty-fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (U of Chicago P, 1986) and the author of a series of influential textbooks, all with Bedford/St. Martins Press: Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers (10th edition, 2014), Resources for Teaching (with each edition of WOR), Ways of Reading: Words and Images (2003), and Reading the Lives of Others: History and Ethnography (1994).

He has published a long list of chapters and articles; those most often taught and reprinted are: “Teaching On and Off the Tenure Track: Highlights from the ADE Survey of Staffing Patterns in English,” “What is Composition? And If You Know What That Is, Why Do We Teach It?,” “Inventing the University,” “Writing with Teachers” (an exchange with Peter Elbow), “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American University,” “Freshman English, Composition, and CCCC,” and “The Study of Error.” Details can be found in his CV.

Please Note:

I have three recent essays in journals not necessarily on the shelves of colleagues in Composition, Rhetoric, Literacy, or Writing Studies. All, however, deal with figures and issues central to these fields. The title is a good guide to the first. The second is an essay on writers and their productive use of written sources The third is a piece I wrote along with my students in a course on Travel Writing:

I have also completed an on-line History ofEnglish at the University of Pittsburgh. If you click the link that follows, you will enter in the 1920s, when the current English Department began to take shape: Once you enter, it is easy to find your way around.

Awards and Distinctions

2014: Pennsylvania Professor of the Year (CASE, Carnegie Foundation)

2008: ADE/MLA Francis Andrew March Award

2006: CCCC Exemplar Award

2005: MLA Mina Shaughnessy Award, for Writing on the Margins

2003-2006: Executive Committee and President-Elect, ADE

1997-2002: Executive Council, Modern Language Association

1995: Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award

1992: Distinguished Sesquicentennial Alumnus, Ohio Wesleyan University

1987: Distinguished Achievement Award, Educational Press Association of America

1985-1989: Chair, Conference on College Composition and Communication (officer’s rotation)

1982: Fulbright Lecturer (Universidad de Deusto)

1980: Richard B. Braddock Award


Composition: He has designed and taught the full range of undergraduate courses, from Basic Writing to Advanced Composition: Prose Style.

Literature: Introduction to Critical Reading; American Literary Traditions; Senior Seminar; The Literature of the Outdoors; The Victorian Period.

Graduate: Teaching Seminar; Introduction to Composition Studies; Figuring Writing; Contemporary Rhetoric; Ordinary Language.


You can find me with Mr. Rogers at

Gallery of Pix

I first read this article during my second year of teaching composition and remember thinking how important this essay was for understanding the complexities our students must negotiate when writing for the first time in an academic community. My second reading of this essay created a similar response. I think, in fact, this essay should be required reading of 670. In “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae makes a number of interesting points which are quoted below:

A student has “to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline, on the other hand.”

“It is very difficult for a student “to take on the role–the voice, the persona–of an authority whose authority is rooted in scholarship, analysis, or research.”

In academic writing, a student “must assume the right of speaking to someone who knows more about [a topic than he or she does], a reader for whom the general commonplaces and the readily available utterances about a subject are indadequate.”

“All writers, in order to write, must imagine for themselves the privilege of being ‘insiders’–that is, the privilige both of being inside and established and powerful discourse and of being granted a special right to speak.”

“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 of persuasion, obligatory conclusions and necessary connections that determine the ‘what might be said’ and constitute knowledge within the various branches of our academic community.”

“By trading in one set of commonplaces at the expense of another, [successful student writers] can win themselves status as members of what is taken to be some more privileged group. The ability to imagine privilege enable[s] writing.”

“As [David] Olson says, the writer must learn that his authority is not established through his presence but through his absence–through his ability, that is, to speak as a god-like source beyond the limitations of any particular social or historical moment; to speak by means of the wisdom of convention through the oversounds of offical or authoratative utterance, as the voice of logic or the voice of the community.”

“To speak with authority they have to speak not only 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 do it before they know what they are doing, before they have a project to participate in, and before, at leart in terms of our disciplines, they have anything to say.”

Sounds pretty tough, doesn’t it?????? It does to me, at least.

As Bartholomae points out, students have such a difficult time entering the academy because they have a difficult time establishing their ethos for an audience that has more knowledge than they do, obides buy conventions and commonplaces that are “inside” knowledge, and demands that students work “within and against a discourse.”

What is interesting to me here is that freshman/undergraduates are not the only ones who face such challenges. As a new graduate student here at CCR, I am facing the same struggles. Everyone knows more than I do; I am accutley aware of an “inside” knowledge I must tap into; and I feel expected to work within and against not only one discourse but a multiplicity of discourses that make up our field.

As of late, I have really been feeling lost. I have no idea who I am as a scholar. I feel utterly overwhelmed by the size and interdisciplinary nature of our field, and I feel intimidated to speak [despite my constant voicing of opinions in class] within a discourse much less against it considering my subject position as a nascent scholar. These feelings were only compounded as I read through scholarship on transnational feminism yesterday and when I went to the Feminism and War Conference this morning. As I was sitting in the workshops, I could not help but feel like an outsider. Here was a group of amazing scholars and activitists speaking in a coded language that I can only pretend to fully grasp and there I was as a want a be, fully engaged, but also fully aware of my lack of experience and direct knowledge in that field. I could not help but feel exasperated at the time and energy it will take me to learn the discourse, theory, and background to ever be able to speak with authority on the topic of transnational feminism and rhetoric.

At the end of his article, Bartholomae suggests we begin to look at the product of our students’ writing for indications at the where are students are at in their composing process within a text and a society, a history, and a culture. I think he is right. I think we should also look to our student’s oral and written responses to our pedagogy, (I am thinking of Trish’s students’ responses to issues of race and Tanya’s students’ difficulty with hypervisibility and my own students’ recent defenses of racism in the name of freedom of speech) to see where they are at in their process to consciousness. I think we often get frustrated with our student for their “outside the university” views and understanding when we really need to understand the complexities they are dealing with. Understanding how students must invent the university in both their writing and their thinking will help us teach with more empathy and patience. As a newbie to our own field, I would only hope others would treat me the same.

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