Shaped by Expectation - Part 4

"Good" writers are not made. They must choose to make themselves, to practice, to learn, and to develop their skills using the most accessible methods that fit their style. Learning what those methods are is part of development and few writers will argue that point. Academic systems, even in higher education, as they currently are do not cater to the diversity of methods by which a developing writer will learn. At worst, academia might set itself up to make certain conversations inaccessible to those receiving training to enter those conversations.

David Bartholomae cites an unfamiliarity of the conventions of academic discourse as the reason for a possible "barrier to entry." Students are monitoring themselves carefully such that their writing can take on the language of their instructor or the scholarship they'd researched or read in class, but I would argue that the results are different not because of an unfamiliarity with those conventions, but an issue of integration and application.

A person who is unfamiliar with a comma, for example, might put one in the wrong place. They might use it in a way that might fit naturally in their native tongue, but in a way that we'd label as incorrect in US standards of English. This doesn't mean that this writer doesn't know what a comma is or cannot explain its function. The comma is not a natural part of their writing or their speech, so moving this convention from definition to application would not be instantaneous.

Writers will attempt to write their way into new communities or to a good grade. It's not impossible for a student of writing to attain command of scholarly language that resembles that of an expert or for the same student to become an expert. When Bartholomae claims that a student writer might claim an "inside" position of privilege within their chosen subject, he might neglect that some of these writers may have been taught consistently to write their essays as thought they are experts.

He observes, "The 'I' of those essays locates itself against one discourse (what it claims to be a naive discourse) and approximates the specialized language of what is presumed to be a more powerful and more privileged community" (Bartholomae, 1985). By "those essays," he is referring to student essays from the previous parts of this work. Is the "I" who has an experience locating themselves against any discourse when their claim is to have had an experience even though the language they are using is not how they would normally express those experiences?

In my view, that's not entirely the case. It can be argued that a change in language used to reflect personal experiences in academic essays can make the retelling less accurate or more exaggerated, but it can also be argued that a change in language could be the result of reflection alongside some possible mimicry. Since some of the essays were a reflection on personal experiences, I feel that this complicates his point. Better examples might have been criticism where a student would be asked to make a claim. While not entirely impersonal as the student would be asked to make a claim on their experience of a text, there would be more moving parts. A student's ability to make a salient claim, the choices a student makes when proving their reasoning, and an experience that more people have access to could have either amplified Bartholomae's stance or proven that high academic discourse can be taught and made accessible to students.

Additionally, Bartholomae among others are claiming an insider's and outsider's language without identifying what that boundary looks like or what is on either side of it. There's a skeletal knowledge of what's on either side of it, that's those who are "in the know" and have certain experience and those who do not. To a significant extent, who is the gatekeeper that dictates what that knowledge and experience looks like or what makes it adequate if not the individual? In this case, we're not talking about people who throw around terminology without knowing what it means. We're talking about people who have enough basic knowledge of a subject to communicate effectively without causing harm.

There is something to Bartholomae's work and many of the points hold weight provided that the students entering the university are doing so in order to enter a certain academic discourse. Not all students share that goal. That doesn't remove the student from the responsibility of their coursework, it just means that their degree will lead them towards a different path for which a different type of writing that's more suited to their style might be necessary. Writing, generally, might take a backseat to that student's goals, and that's valid as well. When a student enters a university setting, it's not unheard of that they would seek to shape their university experience to their career goals.

Students might mimic for the grade, but not always because the product of that mimicry was a reflection of that student's goals. Instructors' expectations will also widely vary and catering to those expectations will sometimes require that mimicry.

In my first article about writers' block, I referenced an allegory made of a child playing with a ball and the parent identifying it as a "ball." A child will, eventually, ideally, mimic the language and be able to use the same command of language to express themselves.

A student's exposure to expectations in writing comes from their instructors. That's the "ball." However, the ball becomes more complicated. The instructor does identify the ball, but has some distance as their students have had exposure to many other outside factors [including other instructors' expectations] that will have shaped their students' method of communication.

The instructor is teaching a method of communication that might conflict with a students' prior understanding of communication or another instructor's teaching. For some students, mimicry might become essential due to those complications.

While I do think that Bartholomae's "Inventing the University" still has some use and is well-known and often cited for good reason, but he critically undervalues the contributions and even the potential of students, arguably the most critical component to any university. While calling attention to the instructor-student power dynamic and offering some fair criticism, not offering a more thorough scope of that dynamic did undermine parts of his thesis.

I would still be interested in hearing his perspective on how, given the opportunity, he would update this essay. Would he evaluate the same essays differently or would he choose different essays, perhaps something more impersonal? What would his stance on mimicry and its utility be? Most importantly, how can we change writing instruction now so as to become more accessible to today's developing writers?


Thank you to all of those who continue to offer me productive feedback and excellent conversations about my work and the progression of Purposeful Prose. Next week, look forward to the next part of my interview with my wonderful colleague from The Urban Writers!

If anyone has suggestions for what they would like to see on my blog, feel free to connect with me through LinkedIn, email, or the live chat. Remember, you do not need a definitive source for your material. Feel free to give me a topic to research and I will do my best with it. If you enjoy my content and want to read more, you can become a Purposeful Prose member and further engage with my material by liking and commenting on my posts directly or participating in my forum.

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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