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My comments on "Inventing the University" by David Bartholomae

By Surjit Atwal June 10, 2015 - 4:48pm Comments (1)

When I was preparing for the first assignment, I read the article “Inventing the University” by David Bartholomae. It got me thinking about my writing process during my time as an undergraduate student.

Bartholomae says that students are expected to write as if they are experts on the subject they are writing about, but this is a problem because students are not given the same training their professors have had in the subject and they are writing for their professors.  He thinks it is unfair to expect students to write as if they are at the same level as the professors.  This reminded me of my experience. In some disciplines I actually faced the same problems he’s talking about, but the problems were with particular professors, not with every professor in the discipline. In one course, the professor said he expected me to write better than I did, because I had said I already knew something about the subject as a hobby outside school. My essay wasn’t up to his academic standards.  At the time I did not possess the same academic knowledge he had.  I knew more than the average Canadian about this subject, but I didn’t know more than the professor.  After reading this article, I now know that what he expected from me was unfair, when he’s been through decades of school and has written books on the subject and I haven’t.

There’s another professor in the same department who was doing the opposite.  When I raised my hand the first day of class, he told me to put my hand down. He said he would certainly hear me out but he said politely that I wouldn’t be ready to criticize the theory until he had had several weeks to teach me more about it. This method worked better for me to write papers, because before he gave an assignment, we had had enough lecture material, enough readings, and enough time to ask questions in class before we had to write about the topic. In his lectures, he gave us a new language in which to say the same things that the readings said.  The readings were 16th to 17th century writing, very complicated to understand, but in the lectures he gave us he spoke more conversationally, but it was still academic. When I wrote the paper, I could easily start using the same academic language that he taught to express what the course material was saying. 

The problem is in the readings, not just the writing. The first professor gave us lectures and readings, and if students had a question about the reading, he would answer the question in the same language the author was speaking.  Because we were there in the class, we were expected to be ready to understand what the readings had to say. These were not 17th century writings, but they were using very difficult terminology. I had to go to another professor to ask what some of the words meant. In a psychology class at another university, my sister asked a question about one of the terms used in a reading and the professor said, “If you don’t understand, then you shouldn’t be here.”

The professors can use the special language as a barrier. They tell students who are not able to do this kind of writing easily, that because they can’t write academically the way they are supposed to, they won’t succeed in university.  They’re taking students’ lack of readiness to write academically as evidence that the students are not going to be able to write academically in that subject area, so they use this as a barrier to tell some students they are not going to be able to go further. Their first attempt doesn’t go well so the professor rules them out for the future as well.

There’s more to writing than just writing, you have to understand the whole process in the background that leads up to the writing. I would agree with Bartholomae that knowing enough to feel you have some expertise is one part of that background.  Working on issues of homelessness in my job for 17 months makes it much easier for me to write about homelessness now.  I have a knowledge base, so I can give more detail.  But I couldn’t write an academic paper about it because I don’t know the special language the academics would use, and that training can only be picked up at the university. After I took two history courses, I developed a taste for history and started reading other books and watching documentaries. I can speak more academically in history, but still not as academically as my professor, because the professor also got the instruction that comes along with the reading, and she could only get this education at a university.

Professors should change the culture at university so that they recognize students are students, not experts.  Professors should teach enough of the subject matter before they expect students to write academically. How I have developed as a writer from the undergraduate level to the graduate level is that I have learned to read much more before I write. I don’t just read the assigned paper, I read other papers cited in it so I have more familiarity with the subject.


Bartholomae, D. 1986. Inventing the university. Journal of Basic Writing 5, no. 2: 4 – 23.


  • You might be interested in Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz's article "The Novice as Expert" which also builds on Bartholomae's ideas and argues that writing is a way for students to transition from being novices in an academic discipline to becoming more expert.

    Jon Gordon June 10, 2015 - 8:27pm

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