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I never met David Bartholomae, the longtime University of Pittsburgh professor of English who passed away on April 4 at the age of 75, but he changed the trajectory of my life. 

Bartholomae is a legendary figure in composition studies, most known for his essay “Inventing the University,” in which he argues that a fundamental purpose of a university education is to make the academic more familiar to students through the process of “building bridges” between the student and the institution. The title refers to the idea that each time a student writes for an academic audience, they are constructing some version of what they think such an audience should like to hear. Over time, and with practice, the student becomes a more confident and secure member of this community. It must be one of the most read essays in the history of undergraduate studies.

But it was a different Bartholomae essay that made such a significant impact on me, “Teaching Basic Writing: an Alternative to Basic Skills.” I read this in a period when I was at my most dissatisfied with how I was teaching writing, having reached the limits of a rather prescriptive approach to instruction where I tried to coach students through each step of a particular academic genre bit by bit, in the theory that if they could produce a successful end product, they had learned how to write.

While I had definitely seen progress in the quality of the written artifacts students were producing, it had also become clear to me that they were not learning in a way that allowed them to transfer the experiences of one assignment to the next. They were highly proficient at jumping through the individual hoops I’d set in front of them, but all that hoop jumping didn’t seem to be adding up to much.

In “Teaching Basic Writing,” Bartholomae makes the case that writing must be about more than “sentence practice,” and any instruction that denies students the chance to, essentially, struggle with what it means to write is failing to do the work of helping students learn. Bartholomae said that “students must be actively writing and simultaneously engaged in a study of their own writing as evidence of a language and a style, as evidence of real and symbolic action.”

In other words, learning to write is not built on a foundation of first knowing how to make correct sentences and then moving on to the tough stuff. We should be engaged with the tough stuff the whole time.

Bartholomae’s framing, along with some other inspirations (most notably the work of Mina Shaughnessy and Peter Elbow, along with innumerable conversations with colleagues), put me on the path that would result in my approach to writing pedagogy as embodied in what I call “the writer’s practice”—the development of the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind of writers.

It’s possible that something else would have unlocked me in the moment I was desperate to go somewhere different, but the fact is that it was Bartholomae.

“Teaching Basic Writing” was published in 1980, when I would’ve been in fifth grade, and yet I managed to go throughout my years as a graduate TA and even earliest years as a college instructor without knowing of the piece’s existence. This is distressing given that Bartholomae is obviously correct about writing being more than the acquisition of the skill of writing sentences. 

Bartholomae observes in the essay that a focus on sentences or discrete modes—narrative, descriptive, expository—“meets the immediate needs of teachers who are frustrated by an almost complete inability to understand what could be happening in the heads of students whose writing seems to be so radically different from their own, or from the writing they learned to read.” In other words, the instructor’s goal is to get students producing work that at least resembles the academic, no matter if the route skips some important stops on the way. Students must be corralled, rather than allowed to roam free, not for the sake of their development, but the comfort of the instructor and the institution.

As a field, since 1980, we’ve become quite proficient at this through prescriptive instruction and formats like the five-paragraph essay so that the student imitations of writing are more convincing than in Bartholomae’s day, but this does not mean that students are any farther along as writers.

Pedagogy has been organized around what could be made orderly, what can be measured and quantified. Bartholomae rejected these values.

As Bartholomae was arguing for an approach that brought students into the world of academic discourse, another scholar who rejected those values, Elbow, was arguing for an increased respect for the nonacademic writing that students already did in their day-to-day lives, seeking to move our frame of reference for student writing beyond the production of academic texts and attempts at academic discourse.

Elbow believes that if we are going to judge students as writers, why are we not including the kinds of writing they already do?

While Bartholomae and Elbow had obvious respect for each other’s views, they also generally believed them to be irreconcilable, with Elbow ultimately declaring that a “tug-of-war” between the writer and the academic was “inevitable.”

In a 1995 essay, “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals,” Elbow concludes,

I suspect that if we could be more sensible about how we create and define the roles of academic and writer in our culture, the conflict might not be necessary. I have the feeling that the role of academic as we see it suffers narrowness for not containing more of what I have linked to the role of writer. Frankly, I think there are problems with what it means to be an academic. If academics were more like writers—wrote more, turned to writing more, enjoyed writing more—I think the academic world would be better. David, on the other hand, probably believes that the role of writer suffers narrowness for not containing more of what I have associated with the role of academic.

As someone who agrees with both of these notions, probably because I am a writer who makes his living adjacent to academia without being an “academic,” my solution as part of the writer’s practice has been to move away from students producing “academic” forms to instead writing while employing “scholarly” thinking as part of a structured process rooted on student engagement. Student writing ends up looking very much like an academic genre, but I make very little reference to academia itself while the work is in progress.

Sometimes this results in students making a real mess of their work, but it is often a productive mess if learning is the goal.

Because the mess of allowing students the chance to develop as writers and thinkers is too great and laced with danger, when I was a graduate student in the mid-1990s – even as Bartholomae and Elbow were in the midst of a high-profile disciplinary debate that rejected merely making sentences as the basic skill of writing—I was handed a text organized around rhetorical modes and trained to respond to student writing by “correcting” their sentences, rather than evaluating their ideas.

It didn’t have to be that way then. It doesn’t have to be that way now.

We have more than enough evidence of the limits of mere sentence making as a skill to forge a different path when it comes to teaching writing. An algorithm that cannot think and has no understanding of its own content can make those sentences. David Bartholomae showed us a different path forward over 40 years ago, yet it’s still the road less traveled when we look at how students are taught writing in aggregate.

I wish I had taken the time to write Bartholomae and express my appreciation for his work when he was still living. It didn’t occur to me, honestly, perhaps because I don’t see myself as a proper academic and people like me don’t write letters to folks who reside on Olympus.

But reading about Bartholomae in the wake of his passing, I realize how ridiculous this notion was. He was a man dedicated to respecting the voices of writers, and his work shows a depth of engagement with student voices that we could all stand to emulate.

One thing I know is that I wouldn’t be where I am without Bartholomae’s work. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

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