“Rituals & Gestures”: Identity and Discovery in the Writing Classroom
Composition scholar David Bartholomae’s influential article “Inventing the University” explicates his perspectives on how basic writers “write their way into the university,” and how they don’t (12). Bartholomae begins by incorporating text from an introductory student essay that he intends to strike readers as challenging to read, or even upsetting. He counters this expectation by articulating the student’s clever use of what Kathleen Yancey terms “metacognition,” or the ability to recognize the “rituals and gestures” necessary for writing in this particular academic genre, considering audience, etc. (6).
Bartholomae continues to use this primary example as evidence for the disconnect between basic writing’s views on “error” and the most worrisome challenge facing developing writers: the performance of privilege or authority (6). Bartholomae argues that students must in fact “enter this discourse,” even before they have developed the appropriate jargon or vocabulary to pull it off (8).
Another compelling example of student writing appears further on: a student has written about a significant experience at work, and dances around taking a formal approach to the prompt. Instead, this student correlates his own response to what Bartholomae views as reluctance to engage in academic discourse:
When the student above says, “I don’t know,” he is not saying, then, that he has nothing to say. He is saying that he is not in a position to carry on this discussion. And so we are addressed as apprentices rather than as teachers or scholars. (8)
Bartholomae further critiques that higher education has neglected efforts to include basic writing students in longitudinal research projects or other collegiate spaces, furthering the ideological divide between basic and advanced students. Not only is this exclusion intentional, but Freire would argue that the objectification of these students, many of whom are of non-hegemonic identities, actually works to further existing cultural and class divides; as long as basic writing students see themselves as observers of academic discourse, they cannot contribute to it.
Bartholomae’s intentional linguistic shift on page 10 (“I think that all writers…) marks an interesting political choice: by moving himself closer to the subject, he is cracking the closed-off, objective voice that we expect of academic writing. This section deals with “the privilege of being ‘insiders’” and the difficulty of students with non-hegemonic identities to see themselves as insiders, and even to have a right to do so. For me, this prompted a sociological question: what narratives are available to us culturally? Socialization demands cultural input, and many archetypes still embrace stereotypical ideas: Michelle Alexander’s criminalblackman, inspiration porn of disabled individuals, well-meaning white educators saving poor brown students (e.g. Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester). Bartholomae’s crucial point here is that certain identities are “granted a special right to speak,” and those identities likely don’t include basic writing students (10). Renowned Black activist and linguist Geneva Smitherman elaborates on this idea in “The Historical Struggle for Language Rights in CCCC,” questioning if the demands for “educated English” are as well-intentioned as they seem (20). She goes on to connect the gatekeeping role of composition courses in colleges, and postulates that students with diverse dialects are excluded from mainstream academic discourse not because of the language itself, but because of their own embodied identities (21). Of course, the challenges of navigating identity and assimilated English is only amplified for non-native speakers of English in the classroom.However, Smitherman and Freire both caution against erasing cultural oppression from our discussions of pedagogy, and Bartholomae negotiates his own subjectivity to mirror the struggles of students.
I’ve wanted to work closely with this text since my first year in the L&L program, when Professors Peele and McBeth both alluded specifically to Bartholomae as foundational in rhetoric and composition. I really appreciate Bartholomae’s critical engagement with his own field; as academia closes ranks and humanities people scramble for funding, I’m afraid that critical self-examination will get further supplanted by defensiveness and disciplinary fanaticism (I’m guilty of this too; ask me what I think about psychology!). Of course, the dated nature of this text is tricky to navigate; while Bartholomae’s ideas still resonate, challenges to “remedial” coursework have only amplified. Bartholomae’s contention that one of the roles of basic writing (or of any writing, really) is to support students in their “assembl[age] and mimic[ry]” of the university, in all its discursive forms, is a challenge that looms almost too large to fathom, perhaps moreso 30 years after this article’s publication.
The pedagogical challenges I emerged from “Inventing the University” with were:
1) how to imbue students (the classroom?) with the agency they need to view themselves as Bartholomae’s authorities;
2) how to collectively value intersectionality in a classroom;
3) how to disengage from the exclusive cult of Academic English ⓒ
I view classroom culture as integral to confronting both 1) and 2), but 3) requires a bit more personal work from me. While I absolutely bring my politics to my grading, it’s immensely difficult to shrug off years of my own “successful” writing, rewarded for my mastery of punctuation, compound-complex sentences, and other gobbledigook that my students have likely had crammed down their throats for close to two decades. This anxiety is trickier for ELLs, since there’s a strong correlation between access and ability to “pass” as a native speaker; many of my students come from diverse linguistic backgrounds, and many of them are carrying trauma—acknowledged or not—from consistent microaggressions and racist condemnations of their dialects (see: G. Smitherman, J. Harris, S. Chandler, and others). As a white teacher from a highly educated family, I have benefited from the exact ideologies that have constrained my students.
It’s difficult for me to unconditionally agree or disagree with Bartholomae’s claims, but I am interested in this notion that surface correctness coupled with simple ideas isn’t always the best approach to developing English writing skills. I recently faced this head-on, when one of my brightest students turned in a syntactically bizarre literacy narrative. Talking one-on-one with this student convinced me that they had a nuanced understanding of their own identities in relationship to the literacy events they depicted in the text, but these ideas were not conveyed as clearly in the text she turned in. In writing center pedagogy, clarity is king, and we strive to derive clear, even simple, prose from student writers; however, Bartholomae upends this goal by claiming that this process of trying on academic language is a mode of “discovery” (11) for students still developing academic language fluency. I wonder if there is a way to achieve both of these goals: supporting authorial development within the academy while centering clarity as a primary goal of academic writing. Perhaps the best response is to foster classroom/writing center/language school culture that appreciates critical discussions of ca$h English instead of uncritically casting them as ideal. I absolutely agree with Bartholomae’s characterization of academic language as “both distinct and… mysterious” (4) and wonder often about how best to equip students to navigate textual spaces that I barely grasp some days.
Essentially, I want my most othered students to see my classroom as a space for them to invent their own university, where ideas trump syntax, but where we all recognize that late capitalism demands surface correctness, the kind of correctness that gleams from the cover of a marketing brochure. I can only commit to this kind of activism by encouraging Yancey’s metacognition and Freire’s critical consciousness, avoiding appropriation, and by embracing Smitherman’s embodied identities in my teaching roles. Oh, and I have to grade stuff too. Bartholomae set the stage for this conversation, and “Inventing the University” is still eminent because we still haven’t figured out how to negotiate all of these contradictory yet inextricable truths.