Inventing the University

David Bartholome, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote an essay that addresses the difficult task that is prevalent amongst many first year students: writing or more specifically “inventing the university.” The common obstacle many students face is conveying their ideas in language of the subject that demonstrates ability in scholarly writing. According to Bartholome “they have to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language”(Bartholome 60) and by doing so students assume the guise of beings members, colleagues, or another individual of equal prestige as the audience the discourse targets. He critiques several student written essays, explaining each one’s strengths and weaknesses in the writing

I believe one of the common misconceptions many students possess about university writing is the idea of writing skills being gauged by one’s utilization of specialized language. We tend to believe that the more words uncommon to spoken vernacular and advanced sentence structures found in a piece of writing the more scholarly it is. Bartholomae’s dismantles this idea by critiquing one student’s use of such specialized language in excess. He argues that by doing so the student inadvertently becomes the voice of authority and forgets he is the student and the audience is the professor. Describing it as “one of the most characteristic slips of basic writers” (Bartholome 6), he further describes the authority is derived from scholarship, research, and overall experience in the field. Any professor would see right through this guise and discern that the student is not knowledgeable on the topic of the discourse. Although inventing the university does involve using specialized language in the context of the subject Bartholome encourages using “commonplaces”, a concept or statement that carries with it its respective meaning. In other words, something that everyone knows what it is and requires little explanation.

Another point Bartholome makes is the importance of the writer to build bridges between him and the audience. The writer must structure his discourse to identify with the audience and take into account the biases, expectations, and perceptions they may have. He must know what makes the audience tick and what anchors their attention. The writer must understand that they address the audience from “ a position of privilege” and anticipate audience reaction. Putting themselves in the shoes of the audience and asking questions like “How would I react to this?”

What determines good writing is measured by demonstrating ability to communicate ideas with respect to the audience and context while still retaining one’s creativity and igenuity. Mimicking other forms of writing only gets someone so far until they have to prove they know what they’re writing about. Bartholome agrees the writing is not an easy process but practicing, refining one’s skills, and improving areas of weakness can transform anyone from a novice writer to a scholar.


Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” 1985. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: NCTE, 2003. Print.