top of page

Shaped by Expectation - Part 3

Writers often, naturally, seek to identify with or identify through their work. I addressed in last week's post that a common piece of advice given to writers is to write how they talk or, alternatively, not to write how they talk. A person's method of expression through writing might naturally be drastically different from the way they speak, but that's not necessarily a flaw.

The third part of David Bartholomae's "Inventing the University" harkens back to his initial premise about how students he's read use [or misuse] more scholarly language so as to be "allowed" entry into discourse. In this section, he cites a collection of student essays rather than just one, making observations about each.

To begin, I would like to examine a model that one of Bartholomae's former instructors used to assist students who experienced blocks in their writing: "While most readers of _________ have said _________. a close and careful reading shows that __________."

This model, I think, is most ideally used in writing planning when the objective is to debunk a premise, but a part of this burden is to prove that this premise exists. When the premise is social and depends on word of mouth, possibly a specific bias, this can be difficult. Changing "most" to "many" could open up more avenues for this interpretation. Further, changing "many" to a name or names could help a writer to develop their thesis and stakes in a more productive way. It can also help them to better place their conflict. Is their conflict with a premise or with the way it's presented? Why is the change necessary?

Bartholomae introduces this model in relation to the way a student began their essay on jazz. I will provide the first paragraph unedited: "Jazz has always been thought of as a very original creative field in music. Improvisation, the spontaneous creation of original melodies in a piece of music, makes up a large part of jazz as a musical style. I had the opportunity to be a member of my high school's jazz ensemble for three years, and became an improvisation soloist this year. Throughout the years, I have seen and heard many jazz players, both proffessional and amateur. The solos performed by these artists were each flavored with that particular individual's style and ideas, along with some of the conventional premises behind improvisation. This particular type of solo work is creative because it is, done on the spur of the moment and blends the performer's ideas with basic guidelines."

The task of this writer is to use a personal experience with creativity and describe what creativity means to them, but is this writer putting themselves at odds with a common premise or attempting to understand a premise about jazz, improvisation, and creativity? We have text, but not context, so we can only determine intention through what is presented.

Jazz is a good subject to associate with the discourse of creativity and its meaning. There are expectations associated with jazz as it is an old art form, and the writer is correct. When a jazz musician within a group improvises, they are expected to complement while using their own ideas. The solo improvisation intends, furthermore, to support. I think that this student has a lot of the right ideas, but could improve in their execution and organization of those ideas. There's a lot of repetition that continues in the second section, and that repetition dwarfs the student's understanding of creativity and jazz music, as compelling of a topic as this is.

Bartholomae observes that this student places themselves and their experience within the context of the discourse, what has been said previously and what will likely be said in the future, as opposed to placing themselves within their experiences alone. Doing so, he states, empowers the writer to use more specialized language, but not so specialized that it's inaccessible to those who do not have experience in music. I find that to be an interesting connection, but while I would like to learn more about it, it's not elaborated on here.

He cites David Olson's idea that the difference between oral and written language is the separation of the producer and the receiver in written language. I take this to mean that the receiver can read what's written in the absence of the producer and still take meaning from it. However, that meaning doesn't include the producer's inflections or body language. Bartholomae frames this slightly differently. He states that what the writer said is more important than what they meant. This doesn't necessarily mean that intention doesn't matter, but that the writer must also do a similar kind of work to their inflections and body language would do and make all meanings and connotations as clear as possible.

While a writer does have this responsibility, it is also the responsibility of the receiver to be mindful of the amount of context they have. They could implement their understanding of the writer's meanings and connotations into their feedback, but when giving feedback, it's important to be aware of the extent to which they can assume. Can a reviewer always assume the position of authority that a rhetor might be taking?

Here is another section from a student essay:

"In a more fitting sense, however, I was being creative. Since I did not purposely copy my favorite songs, I was, effectively, originating my songs from my own 'process of creativity.' To achieve my goal, I needed what a composer would call 'inspiration' for my piece. In this case the inspiration was the current hit on the radio. Perhaps, with my present point of view, I feel that I used too much 'inspiration' in my songs, but, at that time, I did not.

Creativity, therefore, is a process which, in my case, involved a certain series of 'small creations' if you like."

This writer did not need to emphasize the term, "inspiration," in the way that they did as it is a common term that wasn't being redefined. a lot of what was put in quotations in this piece didn't need to be there as it didn't serve that purpose, but I can see how a writer can come to the conclusion that it might.

My review might be presumptuous, but I'm paying attention to the phrase, "in my case." One reason why a rhetor might set certain terms apart is because of the importance that those terms hold to them. Additionally, the rhetor may have been taught to emphasize terms specific to a discourse, but might have trouble applying that guidance.

From what I understand, the experience that this writer puts forth has shaped their understanding of creativity over time. Alternatively, through writing about the experience, they feel that they've gained a different understanding of what creativity means to them. Again, this piece does have its flaws in execution, but while she might be appealing to a specific audience, this reads as different from pandering.

While I think that it's interesting that a student might apply their understanding of a university-associated "code" to their writing in order to best appeal to their instructors and while I think that this code has not always been of help to students in terms of finding their own method of expression, I do think that students find ways to blend their own code with the expectations of university. It reads as though what Bartholomae suggests is an absolute that fully separates students from themselves when they are code-switching and writing for the university, and that's a difficult argument to buy.

I would be interested in what Bartholomae would have to say about strategies that assist writers in, specifically, developing new habits and what habits would be most productive to adopt as developing writers.


Thank you to all of those who have given highly productive feedback to Purposeful Prose thus far and have continued to follow my work. As of now, the promised interview with my amazing writer colleague is scheduled for next week. I look forward to sharing that with all of you the week after. If anyone has suggestions for what they would like to read on this blog, feel free to contact me through LinkedIn, email, or the chat! If you enjoy my content, you can become a Purposeful Prose member and further engage with my material by liking and commenting on these posts directly.

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.

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Oct 01, 2021

Such great insights! You do such an excellent job in responding to Bartholomae's article as well as giving your readers some thoughtful suggestions as to what is needed in terms of mentoring and helping rhetors to hone their skills -- exercising creativity and being thorough while staying within given parameters. Nice work!

bottom of page