A Bartholobowian Classroom
By Kate Hendrickson
Entering a literary theory class, I was unsure of what to expect. I feared discussions of lofty thoughts and abstract ideas that would neither pertain to nor interest me. Surprisingly, I found myself examining my educational experience from new standpoints. Debates over the ideas of David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow particularly intrigued me. Although the two writers vehemently contradict each other, I wavered between their opposing arguments. While I agreed with Bartholomae on the importance of discourse and recognizing its sway over our environment, I disliked his belittling of the individual. At the same time, agreeing with Elbow’s emphasis on originality, I disagreed with his “teacherless writing class.” I commended both writers for seeking solutions to the obstacles faced by student writers. Their methods of empowerment vary radically, however, and each seems too extreme to be very practical or realistic. After reflecting on their arguments and evaluating my own education so far, I concluded that the ideal classroom in the university would synthesize Bartholomae’s structure and Elbow’s freedom, thereby introducing students to the cultural forces present in writing, while at the same time allowing them to explore their individuality.
Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the University” struck me in its parallels to my own education. This piece focuses on the discourse of academia. Bartholomae believes student writers struggle because they do not understand the discursive practices at work, and yet they must “appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse” (4). To possess the discourse of academic writing, Bartholomae contends, requires “a special vocabulary, a special system of presentation, and an interpretive scheme” (7). By giving students the opportunity to possess the discourse, he hopes to enable them to accept the privilege of authorship.
According to Bartholomae, knowledge “makes discourse more than a routine” (6). Although he addresses academic discourse in the university, I believe that it is present and influential in earlier education as well. As I read Bartholomae’s sample student essays, I revisited my seventh grade Language Arts class, where Mrs. Smith introduced us to the most necessary of evils, the five-paragraph essay. I was duly indoctrinated and soon acquired the habit of categorizing information into three main points supporting a main thesis. Although this technique can act as a positive learning tool, I venture to call it evil because it can become mindless and habitual. Indeed, it required more thought and effort for me to write an essay that did not follow this outline once I became so accustomed to it. I understood how to write an informative and structured paper, but I didn’t comprehend that I could possess the words and move beyond a fill-in-the-blanks formula. The discourse of my middle school education created this formula, but I did not even recognize its existence. Bartholomae identifies this same situation as one of the obstacles hindering collegiate writers.
To overcome falling into cultural clichés, Bartholomae prescribes knowledge of the discourse at work. With an understanding of the discourse, the student advances to the status of “insider.” Bartholomae argues that only after recognizing the cultural influence present in discourse can a student begin to write individually, doing so by writing against the discursive definitions (“Writing With Teachers” 86). This statement jumped at me because it articulates an experience from my junior year of high school. In my AP Language and Composition class, we were drilled on rhetorical devices and terms and analyses. Although I initially found the work tedious, by the end of the year I was confident in writing an adequate academic paper. Prior to this class, my literary analyses were nothing more than recycled summaries from the textbook. I read the accepted opinions and reformed them to sound somewhat like my own. My AP Language class led me to believe I had the authority to write something original because I knew the words that opened the doors of academic discourse. I became, in Bartholomae’s terms, a writer who understood the motives of my audience and could “both imagine and write from a position from privilege” (“Inventing” 9).
Imagining this privilege, Bartholomae contends, can be detrimental when it leads students to believe they have written something insightful and original. He argues that discourses pre-exist us, and so it follows that nothing we write is truly new or unique. He claims that ignoring this “is a dangerous and counterproductive practice” (10). In Bartholomae’s view, then, because I adopted the rhetorical jargon without examining its underlying discourse, my writing in AP Language was “more a matter of imitation or parody than a matter of invention and discovery” (11). To trace my education in Bartholomae’s perspective, I unknowingly copied the discourse of writing in middle school and later learned its technicalities in high school. Or, as he more harshly puts it, I learned to “crudely mimic ‘the distinctive register’ of academic discourse” (19). It is now up to my college professors to involve me in “scholarly projects” allowing me act as a colleague “in an academic enterprise” (11). Although I identified with the problems of student writers presented by Bartholomae, I disliked his strict emphasis on the role of the teacher, and here is where Peter Elbow comes in.
Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers reads easily and conversationally. His version of empowering student writers eliminates the teacher. He boldly states that teachers often make the worst readers because they are too good of readers. They do not expect to be wowed by student essays, so they do not pay close attention to what they are reading (127). In addition, teachers are no less subject to emotion than anyone else, and their subjectivity can be apparent in their grading and teaching (120). I applied this perspective to the role of the teacher promulgated by Bartholomae. Bartholomae emphasizes the need for teachers to illuminate the workings of discourse. He does not take into account, however, how the subjectivity of teachers may influence the writing of the students. For example, by urging students to write against the discourse, isn’t the teacher essentially telling the students what to write? Elbow makes this point in a response to Bartholomae, arguing that the best way to empower students is to encourage them “to think for themselves and not be dupes of others thinking for them” (“Interchanges” 91). Remembering a literature course my freshman year in college in which the professor rejected interpretations straying from his own, I sided with Elbow on this point.
While Elbow does not altogether discredit the importance of discourse, he does not focus on the social construction of language. According to Elbow, by belaboring the point, teachers discourage students from writing. When students try to appropriate the discourse, their writing is reader-based and they submit their papers silently asking, “Is this okay?” (“Being a Writer” 92). The solution posited by Elbow is the formation of teacherless writing classes. A group of peers makes better readers because they follow your writing from week-to-week, witness your reactions, and are familiar with your particular language (Writing 129). Elbow further contends that since response is what compels us to write in the first place, teacherless writing classes are more beneficial because they generate genuine responses.
Whereas Bartholomae believes students can only write individually after acquiring the terms, limits, and effects of discourse, Elbow believes writing courses fail students by “break[ing] up the skill into its ideal progression of components” (136). He stresses the importance of freewriting in his response to Bartholomae. He claims “nothing is better . . . at showing us how we are constructed and situated” (“Interchanges” 89). Students can discover discursive influences without being dictated to by teachers. Unlike Bartholomae, Elbow believes in the power of the individual to create. Although he acknowledges social construction, he encourages students to “make as many decisions as they can about their writing—despite the power of culture” (“Interchanges” 90).
At the heart of the matter, I believe, lies the distinction between academic and personal writing. Bartholomae prefers academic while Elbow favors personal. Their preferences then shape their solutions for student writers. Because academic writing interests Bartholomae, he centers his solution on the appropriation of academic discourse. Students should question the language surrounding them and examine the discursive elements present. Elbow, however, finds that academic writing teaches students to distrust language. This directly opposes his belief that for students to “experience themselves as writers,” they must learn to trust language (“Being a Writer” 78). Both writers makes valid points that today’s universities should consider when creating composition curriculum. Having completed only a year at the university so far, I lack the authority to pass judgment on the writing instruction at CSU. However, an evaluation of my earlier education together with insight gleaned from the arguments of Bartholomae and Elbow, I am justified in offering my own version of the ideal college composition class, a blending of Bartholomae and Elbow.
From early on, in true Bartholomae style, I memorized terms of the discourse—literary terms, devices, and forms. The work became repetitive from year to year, but as a result, I entered my AP language class with a firm understanding of the components of the discourse of writing. Although I had appropriated the terms without being made aware of their defining discourse, I still found this information pertinent and practical coming to college. Having acquired the basic, underlying structure of the discourse of writing, I was now ready to be introduced to its social construction. Based on this experience, I believe Bartholomae is right in his diagnosis of student writing: Without knowledge, discourse is nothing more than routine. However, the routine is necessary because it creates steps in between the progressive stages of writing.
An entirely “Bartholomaic” classroom, however, depends absolutely on discourse and this presents a problem for my ideal class. For Bartholomae, nothing exists outside of discourse. He even goes so far as to say teaching students to write “as though they were not products of their time, politics and culture” is merely a “reproduction of the American myth” (“Being a Writer” 70). By reiterating this, I believe instructors would discourage students and prompt them to wonder why anyone bothers to write at all. To counteract this, I would include an “Elbowian” aspect in my classroom. Elbow invites students to “write as though they are a central speaker at the center of the universe” (80). As both Bartholomae and Elbow point out, writing requires a certain amount of pride and arrogance. Bartholomae suggests these can be acquired by appropriating the discourse, and Elbow argues they emerge out of personal writing that emphasizes the individual in the face of cultural construction; they are uncovered when “writers take themselves too seriously” (81). In my utopian classroom, students would be familiarized with both solutions and then encouraged to pursue the strategy best suited to their learning style.
Ideally, writing in the university should teach students the importance of discourse, as well as reinforce the importance of the individual. Elbow and Bartholomae both stress that students should think for themselves. But an Elbowian instructor tells students to focus on personal experience, and a Bartholomaic professor tells students to fight against overriding discursive practices that define personal experience. In both classrooms, the instructor is still telling students how to write. Instead, I propose that university professors give students a little credit and let them explore various writing processes. Instead of spending so much time arguing amongst themselves, professors should throw back the curtain obscuring the academic world from students’ eyes. In this act, professors could also take a step back and allow peer reading to play a role, although not a dominant one, along with traditional teaching. By synthesizing the opposing components of Bartholomaic and Elbowian classrooms, an ideal, and effective, composition class would include students in the conflicts. Students certainly see for themselves the obstacles faced by writers. But if only they could see the wide range of solutions available—with Bartholomae at one end of the spectrum and Elbow at the other—then they just might discover their own form of empowerment and finally feel comfortable writing within the academic discourse.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing 5.1 (1986): 4-23.
---. “Interchanges: Response.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 84-87.
---. “Writing With Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 62-71.
Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 72-83.
---. “Interchanges: Response.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 87-92.
---. “From Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. viii-ix, 117-141.
© Kate Hendrickson