Writing for Change: Re-Inventing the University
Danielle Althouse, Ciara Bailey, Amanda Beinhauer, Cailin Brashear, Jacqueline Bridges, Mia DiFelice, Jonathan Frye, Clara Grantier, Phillip Koman, Mary Lawrence, Lucas Lecomte, Louis M. Maraj, Christopher Minor, Ana Moser, Kayla Ortiz, David Patlakh, Victoria Pfefferle-Gillot, Hannah Polk, Yizhan Qu, Anna Rosenberg, Marina Sullivan, and Sarah Tolaymat
Dave Bartholomae argues that student writing invents the university by creating ideas about how one might enter discourse communities. What happens when we reflect on this idea by going back to the source of Bartholomae’s concept to center the very students from whose writings these communities arise? How can we critically think through the role of the student author in our research practices as operating as more than raw material for our studies of their writing products? This essay re/turns to the geographical site of Bartholomae’s study—the University of Pittsburgh—and showcases undergraduate authors in a Writing for Change course in the process of re-inventing what they’d like their university experience to be. In doing so, we trouble the subject/object paradigm of using student writing as the intellectual basis for research in the fields of rhetoric and writing studies. By offering students chances to write alongside faculty, we summon a student-centered methodology where these fields might value and credit students’ knowledges to fuel imaginative understandings of university spaces. We hope that instructors might find benefits in thinking creatively to think critically with their students about learning spaces (classrooms, university environs, publications) to transform them while simultaneously occupying them. To parse out voices or introduce hierarchies of instructor-student distinctions—whether to offer takeaways or reflective commentary—belies our aim of sitting with our imaginations about what universities and their spaces might look like in collective dreaming. This chapter should, then, be understood to perform that which it argues.
Writing for Change focuses on social justice writing in a mid-level Public and Professional Writing course setting. We pursued our course’s thematic concept, ‘community’ (broadly constructed and in specific relation to communities at Pitt and in Pittsburgh), through a Black feminist lens that values taken-for-granted everyday knowledges. On one particular class day, dedicated to thinking through how we ‘locate change,’ we read Bartholomae’s influential essay “Inventing the University” alongside Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” We then wrote individually and collectively to re-invent the university, describing what our ideal versions of a university would look like. By presenting what emerged from collaborative exchanges, we enact core aspects of a Black feminist epistemology, such as the use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims and lived experiences as a criterion of meaning (Collins). We urge to push the boundaries of who is considered a ‘published’ academic writer and who gets to conceptualize ‘the university,’ theoretically and in practice. Below we present our four collaborative responses to the question “What would your ideal university do?” before concluding by considering the stakes of our imagined universities. Our responses importantly highlight the implications of student debt, the value of interdisciplinarity, and culturally aware community relations between universities and their environs. We speak simultaneously on local, practical terms as well as on global, theoretical levels. We understand these ideals as imaginative but hope that conjuring them through writing can motivate us to pursue them despite the day-to-day grind of often slow-moving institutions.
Our ideal university would provide students with ample resources to help prepare them for their respective careers as well as to ensure they have the practical life skills needed to live as functional adults after graduation. The university would provide a digital list of tips and resources for students seeking advice about signing housing leases and contracts. It would offer workshops to inform students about the basics of doing taxes, obtaining insurance, making investments, handling personal finances, and other essential life skills that don’t get covered in typical academic courses. With regard to securing professional internships—and, ultimately, a job after graduation—this ideal university would provide students with an up-to-date database of alumni in all parts of the world who are working in their fields and are willing to be contacted by students for networking purposes. It would also make more of an effort to ensure that students of every field and major can find a variety of career-relevant employers available at university-wide career fairs and other events offered to the general student population by the career office throughout the year. Lastly, the university would require students to take at least one course for their major that is in a different, supplemental field but which is relevant to the career which the student hopes to pursue and valuable to employers in the respective field. For example, political science students seeking to work on a campaign upon graduation should be armed with tools like HTML coding and persuasive communications if they hope to be marketable in their job search, so the political science major should encourage such students to take courses on one of those subjects and count these towards completion of the major.
Furthermore, the university would also implement a better system of finances for its students—consisting of more accessible funding for clubs, supplies, housing, tuition, etc. While many students that attend universities find themselves consumed by debt later in life, students who attend this university would be given debt-free accessibility. The university itself would provide a substantial amount of funding in the form of grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid that would meet each student’s specific needs based on their household finances or lack thereof. This way, the worry of debt after school would be eliminated—ensuring that their job search would be focused solely on their future endeavors and not solely having to pay off the debt caused by their education. The university would also apply more accessible funding for areas within the university such as clubs, supplies, housing, and so on. Clubs would receive adequate funding, ensuring that all students who wished to participate had the means of doing so. Supplies such as textbooks, laptops, and other technology (when deemed necessary), and all other class-issued items would be provided for the students upon attendance and would be the same for all students regardless of their financial status. Also, affordable on-campus housing would be made readily available for all students who choose this path. With these implications, our university would no longer burden students with the looming presence of debt in their current lives or immediate future, so they would be able to focus solely on furthering their education and looking forward to their futures.
Finally, our ideal university would allow for a more immersive community experience for its students. Rather than it simply being a separate entity in the middle of an already-established community, our university engages with the community. Because construction projects and campus events affect non-student community members, public forums would be held with these community members to foster an open communicative relationship. Our university would not be one to simply lord itself over the community without their input like a dictator. Students would be encouraged to complete service hours for the community and attend other events within the community such as farmer’s markets, fundraisers, and block parties. By doing so, students will have a greater opportunity to engage with and discover a brand-new set of experiences and people that they would otherwise have missed out on. This also allows for students to grow more knowledgeable about the place they are living for the duration of their university studies.
Our ideal university would encourage collaboration between students of different disciplines as well as among faculty and the surrounding community. Because academic and professional fields in our society are divided along largely arbitrary lines, college students often remain ignorant of the interconnectivity and opportunities for collaboration that could make their careers more meaningful. Thus, structures should be built to help students achieve a more interdisciplinary education. Career paths are infinite and intersecting, but many students still come to college with rigid ideas of the job titles they can pursue. Most universities offer many opportunities for professional networking, skill-building, and shadowing that overwhelmingly cater to “traditional” career paths, not the highly interdisciplinary jobs that are increasingly dominating the 21st century economy. Our university would expose and connect students to contemporary career options.
The ideal university would center its curriculum and extracurricular opportunities around service-learning—not the type that we have become familiar with during most universities’ one-day volunteer events, but rather long-term reciprocal relationships with nearby neighborhoods. These relationships should be built according to the demonstrated needs of the community, not what is convenient for students and administrators. As Stephen Parks writes about partnership work, “The first step. . . is to quietly wait” (174); students must take time to rhetorically listen (Ratcliffe) to their community partners and develop an understanding of “the economic, political, and legislative histories in which a neighborhood exists” (Parks 176).
The ideal university would encompass a collaborative workspace in which educators and students work together. This means that professors would teach not only to grade, and students would learn not only to maintain a sufficient grade-point average. Instead, professors would guide the students towards achieving career-oriented goals, personal growth, and impactful community engagement. To that end, educators must be more facilitative, creating “mentor-mentee” relationships, and the university must establish smaller class sizes to encourage educators and students to get to know each other on a personal level.
Our ideal university, Lorde University, would be a suburban school on the edge of the city, allowing students to enjoy opportunities in the city while also providing an escape from hectic city life. It would distribute funds more equally across clubs. A campus-wide culture of enthusiasm and appreciation for community engagement, as well as administrative support, will bolster service clubs and projects. Extracurricular culture would be more inclusive and open than at Pitt. Tools like a central social media hub would help connect more students.
Lorde University would operate on pass-fail assessments, reducing competition and stress. Professors’ job conditions could be more equitable by rethinking the tenure system, which allows some professors to slip because they no longer worry about job security, while many adjuncts and for-contract professors struggle to make ends meet. Student evaluations of teaching could hold a different kind of influence on salary and contracts while remaining cognizant of cultural bias against vulnerable instructors (Lazos). Finally, classes would have more practical applications past graduation. Students could take classes that would teach life skills.
An important aspect of the University would be textbooks and dining included in tuition. Many students choose classes to avoid a high textbook bill; others stress about their next meal on top of studies. No student’s finances should negatively impact their university experience. This applies to the ultimate goal of Lorde University—to enjoy learning and enjoy it for its own sake. Our University’s final goal is a well-rounded and interdisciplinary education. These are the foundations for the quality education we believe every student has should have an opportunity to experience.
As a group, we envision our ideal university to be cheaper and will provide students with volunteer opportunities to reduce their tuition. This program will be like work study but will provide students with higher compensation and benefit the whole community. Students will engage with surrounding communities, ultimately leading to community-oriented students. As far as on-campus community is concerned, there will be sports that the students can watch or participate in. Students will also have the opportunity to create new student organizations that their peers can become involved in. With these things in place, all students can be involved in some way and can put their interests and talents into action.
Our ideal university will also make all students take a coding and digital media class because we feel those two skills will become very prevalent in the future. There will also be random curriculum evaluations so that professors receive constant feedback on their teaching. With random evaluations, professors will have to make sure that they are always doing a thorough job, because after all, we are paying for our education.
One more key quality about our ideal university is that it will have equal funding across all departments. Some universities place such a heavy emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses, so those are the only departments that receive funding. Meanwhile, departments like language arts are ignored and left in the dust. With equal funding and a collaborative environment, each department will have adequate access to the resources they need, and students from all majors will receive a high-quality education.
One of the most important aspects of the university is the educational experience. It is the primary reason why many students choose to go to college in the first place. Our creations demand an increase in interdisciplinary academics. This would prevent students from being pigeonholed into one specific field where they might not have access to supplemental learning from a different area of study. Therefore, departments should design their curriculum with related disciplines in mind, and there should be platforms for students and faculty from across fields to communicate and collaborate on projects. Regarding the actual setup of classes, the teacher-student relationship would play out more like a mentor-mentee than an expert-novice. They would focus on growth and development instead of GPA so that students are motivated to learn and improve by something more than failure to make a grade. Classwork evaluation would become comment-based and course grades would change into a pass/fail system. Also, smaller class sizes would allow for professors to focus more on their students and their performance.
In addition to these points, a resounding through-line of current education falls on the lack of practical skills that are needed to succeed outside of the classroom. In our ideal universities, courses involving different kinds of insurance, taxes, housing and rent, investments, and loans should be implemented. Courses involving coding and digital media would be required to teach in general education classes for all students because technology is such a vital part of our everyday lives. The university would then offer career-relevant employers for every student’s field at networking events and career fairs to have knowledgeable experts available for them to get in touch with.
With these educational opportunities, a price must be paid. However, crippling student debt is something our ideal universities strive to avoid in order for students to be more focused on their futures and what they want to do, rather than what will better pay off loans. Schools would provide their textbooks and technology for free to every student. Instead of always handing over hundreds of extra dollars per term, there could be a small book fee in the tuition. With regards to that, dining would also be included in the tuition to avoid the literal hundreds of students wasting extra money on plans they cannot and will not use. A creative way our universities could relieve financial stress would be to offer opportunities to reduce tuition costs through volunteering or community work.
Speaking of which, in most cases universities do not exist in a vacuum. They are a part of an established community. This is where our creations lie. The university should strive to offer a more immersive community experience, for students and the general population. When planning construction projects and large-scale activities, there will be public forums held with community members to get their input and feelings. Students can do service hours and community experiences for credit or volunteer time. In addition, public events outside the university can be bolstered through student attendance—like farmer’s markets, community fundraisers, and more. Centralized platforms for publicizing student organization activities and community activities will work in tandem with each other to foster active participation. This university is less of a foreign entity and more a part of the larger whole. Community experiences will be built according to demonstrated needs in the neighborhood. They will be reciprocal and long term. Students will start as observers and learn to become a part of the community organically.
Interdisciplinary, individualized, and practical—Pitt already facilitates some of the things we request throughout this essay, including exposure to unique job possibilities, connection to alumni, and centralized platforms for learning about activities on- and off-campus. For example, the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences homepage is organized into multiple broad areas of interest, each with its own page full of links to fellowships, internships, student organizations, community engagement opportunities, research positions, and career path examples. You can read student and alumni accounts of their interdisciplinary, hands-on experiences, from research (Link Between Alcohol Use, Perceived Physical Attractiveness) to extracurricular activities (broadcasting media from the new Pitt Studios) to careers (curatorial project manager for a tech-based art consultancy), and then easily click over to instructions on how to get involved with something similar. This is not that say that these resources work for everyone—we understand that they are not one-size-fits all—but that Pitt attempts to respond to these needs institutionally in some form.
General education requirements are designed to give students what we want from our college education: the opportunity to explore many interests and become well-rounded. Each of the requirements can be satisfied by a range of courses with interesting concentrations, so that students never have to take a class they aren’t passionate about in the name of fulfilling requirements. What could be a problem is an approach to general education requirements where students pick the first easy-sounding class they see and then expend minimal energy and attention needed to pass it. By doing so, these students miss out on a chance to delve into diverse topics and to “develop the skills that employers want (like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving)” (University “The Academic”).
Pitt attempts clear efforts to have informed and productive community immersion as illustrated by the community engagement centers that the university has started in Homewood and the Hill District. The goal of these community engagement centers is to create an intersection between these two Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the Pitt community. To this end, Pitt is making a “15 year commitment of investment, infrastructure, programming and dedicated staff,” to these community engagement centers (CEC https://cec.pitt.edu/about/). These centers allow students, faculty, and staff from Pitt to use the knowledge, resources, and teaching skills of the university to help advocate for and support the members of the Homewood and Hill District communities. This type of organic, need-driven community engagement (versus rigid, straightforward service) could be seen as important for universities. In this vein, it is beneficial for universities to be located in urban areas for optimal community engagement because this will ensure that there are ample community members with which the university can engage and exchange resources. Additionally, PittHonors has a Community Engagement Advisor who can help connect students with service opportunities. This is on an appointment basis, so students have the opportunity to individually express how they would like to get involved in the community; although this allows students to serve causes they are passionate about, it also runs the risk of creating student-centered service rather than need-centered service. Both the community engagement centers as well as the engagement advisor exemplify how Pitt tries to be more in line with our “ideal university,” yet we think awareness and outreach about some of these opportunities remain lackluster.
The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid has the Diversity Recruitment Education & Mentoring (DREAM) team, which aims to recruit and support underrepresented students from Allegheny County by hosting college-prep meetings during weeknights for middle and high school students. The DREAM team consists of faculty and students, so this program again enables Pitt to actively be involved with helping the greater Pittsburgh community by having students engage with local youth. Pitt has also recently introduced Panthers Forward, a student debt relief program and alumni network that offers a $5,000 grant for graduating seniors. These represent small steps to ensure that our student body is more diverse and that even more importantly, students appreciate and celebrate our differences.
To make these ideal universities a reality, multiple steps must be made in order to act. As far as the free tuition ideal, we could have more government funding by increasing taxes or redistributing funds the government already receives. Instead of focusing most of our spending on military endeavors, we could redirect this income to improving the experiences of students, who represent the future of America. To provide cheaper dining or higher-quality meal plans, the university could cultivate relationships with local businesses, farms, and restaurants that would give better options to students.
To improve the success rate of students, the university would implement a better way to equalize professors. One way of doing this would be to re-conceptualize the tenure system so that professors teach for the sake of teaching rather than a guaranteed job. The department chairs would converse with and assess its professors within their division, and student surveys would occur more often and carry different kinds of weight while being cognizant of cultural prejudices against vulnerable instructors. The increased practice of midterm conferences and in-class surveys would strengthen relationships between students and professors and provide professors with more feedback to improve their classes.
Extracurricular events like volunteering would be integrated in the curriculum either through classes for a grade or a separate course itself that would solely focus on volunteering and bettering the community for credit. The university would incorporate its local community by implementing more projects and essays such as those in first-year writing courses, revolving around the area such as visiting landmarks, stores, and other monumental parts of the city.
Taking these steps would help realize the many aspects of our ideal universities and provide students with a more enriching education, gaining skills and experiences valuable long after graduation.
These steps are necessary and must be implemented to reflect the rapidly growing and changing times of our country. The year 2018 has been a year of recognition. As a country, we have recognized difference, and instead of shying away from it, we should celebrate it. In a time when so many minority groups are being targeted, it is important not to forget that people outside of our social groups are also being affected. Our ideal university would encourage each student to embrace justice and equity and learn about fields, communities, and issues they have not experienced. Getting students involved in initiatives to help the greater community will not only make students better citizens but also help improve Pittsburgh and the university. For example, students could become more involved in working to make the university greener by creating clubs or forming initiatives. The projects mentioned above can make campuses the place for long-term change and give students the skills and knowledge they need to continue to implement change beyond their time in college.
Overall, it is important to instill these steps in our ideal university because we live in a diverse world. Difference is an essential and permanent part of our society, making it crucial to work to celebrate that in the face of people who try to destroy it. Difference should be celebrated in and out of the classroom, among students, among nearby communities, and among each student’s specific interests. College shouldn’t be for any specific person; it should be for anyone who has a career goal and wants to further their education and become more well-rounded and employable. This is why our ideal university would be accessible to students from all backgrounds, without discriminating against their financial situation, race, ethnicity, or upbringing.
The political situation today requires people of different backgrounds to work together to help each other. Each group working alone to improve their own situation is not enough—this essay attempted to model this idea by offering writing by and across groups of students imagining together. The fight for racial justice, women’s rights, gender equity, religious freedom, and the rights of immigrants requires people from both within and without these groups supporting each other and sharing resources. Ideally, the university would have students from all walks of life, and they would be encouraged to learn about and get involved in issues that affect those around them. The university would become a place where change begins and expands beyond the borders of the campus. Therefore, on the day-to-day level, we encourage instructors to find ways to think with their students in public ways that value the imaginations of its classroom communities more horizontally than vertically through student writing. This essay represents our attempt to think through and performatively enact how that might happen.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University,” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, spring 1986, pp. 4- 23.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 1990.
Lazos, Sylvia. “Are Student Teaching Evaluations Holding Back Women and Minorities?: The Perils of ‘Doing’ Gender and Race in the Classroom.” Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzales, and Angela P. Harris, Utah State University Press, 2012, pp. 164-185.
Lorde, Audre “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 40–59.
Parks, Stephen. Writing Communities: A Text with Readings. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2017.
Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
University of Pittsburgh. “The Academic Experience.” asundergrad.pitt.edu/academic-experience.
---. “Home.” The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Undergraduate Studies, asundergrad.pitt.edu/.
---. “Panthers Forward.” panthersforward.pitt.edu/.