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Shaped by Expectation - Part 1

In academic settings, students are often expected to find the best possible way to produce fact and analysis of fact without knowing the extent of their reviewer's objectivity. Careful use of language can make something completely mundane sound fascinating. For example, there are many people who enjoy the feeling, the softness, and the warmth of clean clothes just coming out of the dryer. A deep description of how that might feel to a person would be relatable, enjoyable, possibly humorous. However, when does that feeling need to be experienced and when do clothes simply need to be taken out of the dryer?

It's not new information that every discipline inside and outside of academia has its own common vocabulary and method of communication. As such, there are different expectations connected to writing in each unique discipline. A part of learning how to integrate oneself into that discipline is to be on speaking terms with it, and there are points where students are expected to behave as though they are with limited understanding or training within the discourse they are chosen to enter.

David Bartholomae has named this concept, "Inventing the University." Instead of covering the entirety of this piece in one post, I'd like to separate each idea that has been covered so as to not do it any injustice. It isn't as though students or developing writers within a discourse are incompetent and it isn't that they are not capable of making profound or salient points, though I believe that Bartholomae might be verging on implying this.

What I believe can be taken from this, and what should be taken from this, is that academic expectations are not so standardized that they do not vary from institution to institution, from instructor to instructor. So, learning how people communicate within the discourse that a student seeks to explore should take priority. If not, an interesting specialization can run the risk of "weeding people out." As Bartholomae puts it, "The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that defines the discourse of our community" (Bartholomae, 1985). He immediately corrects himself by saying "various discourses," but I don't feel he does so adequately.

My criticism of this point is that while a language and a method of research can be common to the discourse, his claim appears to apply that understanding this common method and its application is akin to mastery. While a developing writer in a discourse might not be able to claim access to the same tools and methods that experienced professionals in their field possess, this should not be used as a way to deny others access to those conversations.

It is the possibility, I believe in many cases, of being denied admittance to their chosen field that I believe developing writers choose the mimicry that Bartholomae describes. Mimicry of the language as an attempt to learn and engage with it can be helpful. Mimicry written as an entry ticket in hopes of adhering to unclear expectations of a widely varied discourse can cause immediate pitfalls. Bartholomae cites an essay written by a first year college student that does this, stating that it is a good effort for someone who doesn't immediately have a vast knowledge of his field, but not in terms that [I feel] fit the rhetorical situation.

"Creativity is the venture of the mind at work with the mechanics relay to the limbs from the cranium, which stores and triggers this action. It can be a burst of energy released at a precise time a thought is being transmitted. This can cause a frenzy of the human body, but it depends on the characteristics of the individual and how they can relay the message clearly enough through the mechanics of the body to us as an observer. Then we must determine if it is creative or a learned process varied by the individuals thought process. Creativity is indeed a tool which has to exist, or our world will not succeed into the future and progress like it should" (1985).

This is one paragraph out of three, and in my first pass, I immediately noticed the type of vocabulary used. The language is varied, and this is important, but it's varied at the expense of the overarching goal of this paragraph. I believe that this student is wanting to define creativity, complicate creativity, and state its usefulness in a society that does not prize it. More simply, I believe that this is language-focused as opposed to goal-focused.

I'm missing a great deal of information in the form of pre-writing and planning. We have a prompt, however. It states, "Describe a time when you did something you felt to be creative. Then, on the basis of the incident you have described, go on to draw some general conclusions about 'creativity'" (1985). While this helps a little bit, knowing the prompt, I can still assert that the intentions for the final paragraph went beyond drawing conclusions. This means that, while the prompt poses a clear question, the prompt isn't what defines the intention of a piece of writing.

A prompt followed by expectations could solve this, but might also have been too restrictive. However, it reads as though very few expectations were presented, so these expectations had to be self-made. This student wrote in terms that they conceived of as "university language," but seems to have very clear intentions despite the fact that they were not very clearly executed. This is not an unsolvable problem. The student could have learned how to best follow their university's expectations and feel confident in their writing style. However, what if they didn't?

What if this entry ticket was denied? What if this student was not given the tools that they needed to prioritize different elements of their writing? The question was present. The expectations were invisible. These were left for the student to create.

Bartholomae frames the language-focused writing as the creation of a fiction, which it can be depending on one's definition of fiction. The reason why fiction is so different, and can be so much more difficult to execute well, is because it involves the creation of a world outside of one's own, but can [and often does] both reflect and represent the world we live in. Even historical fiction involves world-building. The world already exists, but the world is left to be built for the characters and situations that are created.

In this essay, the student was not attempting to create a world outside of their own. It appears, rather, that the student was attempting to describe a part of their world in relation to a concept that was presented to them. The student was also tasked with doing so for an audience that they were familiar with perhaps in hopes to be among them, but at least gain the opportunity to better understand them.

The expectations were by all accounts invisible, both through the perspectives of the student reading the university's language and possibly the reviewers of these essays. I say invisible as opposed to nonexistent because they do exist, but they are unclear. University training can help someone better use language that will help a student communicate in a discourse, but a student's unpreparedness to immediately take on that language should ideally not be met with ridicule. It's possible that a discourse might not be a good match for a student, but one entrance essay cannot provide even an experienced professional adequate proof of that.

Bartholomae's analysis of this student's essay was not, I think, fully appropriate as it lacked substantial information about the student, the thought process undergone to produce that essay, and the student's intent. As such, countering Bartholomae's analysis can poke holes in a very valid premise that does hold weight.

Even given the age of this piece, it is true that every discipline and environment has its own language associated with it and it is the ability to communicate with that language [or otherwise be amicable with that language] that can define a person's relationship to that environment. It is possible for frequent users of that language to gatekeep others' access to it to the point where mimicry is both encouraged and required. However, recognizable mimicry is not as accepted and can, at times, be easily pulled apart and used against the rhetor, even in settings where it is the job of the environment to build the rhetor before the rhetor can turn back to build in their environment.

A big thank you to all of those who have given me feedback on previous pieces and have helped me to build this one. While I am, to a degree, at odds with it, I do recognize the importance of this piece and why it is seen as fundamental. I also appreciate the concepts that are addressed even if I don't entirely agree with how they are presented. Next week, I will be covering the final essay in my text on post-process theory before moving forward with Bartholomae.

If you would like to provide more direct feedback, "like," comment, or post on the Purposeful Prose forum, you can become a member and interact more directly with other Purposeful Prose members. If you make a suggestion for a topic that you would like to see me cover, I will most likely see members' suggestions first. Your suggestions might appear in an article or, if they are specialized enough, can be covered in an interview with one of my wonderful colleagues!

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Bartholomae, D. (1985). Inventing the university: In M. Rose (Ed.), when a writer can’t write: studies in writer’s block and other composing-process problems. New York: Gilford P.

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