Inventing Critical University Studies

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. 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 define the discourse of our community.

The well-known rhetoric and composition scholar David Bartholomae wrote these words  over two decades ago. (It was 1986 to be exact: the year I started high school and the song “That’s What Friends Are For” was number 1 on the charts–more on the symbolic import of all that another time.)

The phrase “inventing the university,” also the title of the article, became a mantra for the “social turn” in English departments and writing programs in the 1980s and 1990s.  Writing is social, context-specific, and situational. Students (and all writers) should not seek to compose or create something new. Our job is to creatively adopt and adapt discourse to suit the situation we are writing into. We don’t discover language, it discovers us.

I taught this way for twenty years.  Discourse first, rhetoric always, purpose and position paramount. Invent the university: yes. Also: invent literary theory or cultural criticism and, when I was coordinating our Writing Across the Curriculum Program, I’d add that students should also invent the laboratory report, the business memo, the case-report. Invention is knowledge and power.

That was two years ago.

As recent readers know, I spent 2012-13, my sabbatical year, as a student of freshman composition. I am in the middle of putting together my data and reflecting on that experience for a book entitled From Culture to Complexity: Writing, Teaching and Higher Education, 1992-2012. Bartholomae’s canonical essay helps me realize that most of my findings come down to this:  You can’t invent the university. Maybe you could in 1986. Maybe I did in 1991, when I turned 18 and took my first year college writing seminar.

But I can’t in 2014. Or at least my classmates and I couldn’t.

We certainly put in the college try.  In assignment after assignment there was an attempt to find the discourse of the “occasion”: the genre, topic, audience, university expectation. But every piece of writing we did (I’ve collected hundreds) came up short.  The good, the bad, the unfinished–almost all of our assignments fail to fit into any idea of the university.

That’s because when Bartholomae argued that students need to invent the university he believed that a university did indeed exist.  I don’t think that’s the case now.  You can’t try on the discourses of the university if you don’t know what the university is: what it does, who it’s for, where it’s going.

Perhaps it’s time to realize that the emperor has no clothes.

And so the next phase of this blog and book is to move from describing freshman composition in our new culture wars era to describing composition in our post-universal idea-of-the-university moment.

We can’t invent the university. But we may be able to write what Jeffrey Williams and others call “critical university studies.”


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About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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