Stacey Waite

The work of this collection began in several years of discussion between myself and Peter about the pedagogical approaches we engaged in at the University of Pittsburgh as graduate students under the mentorship of David Bartholomae. While Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” is a long studied, widely quoted, often assigned, and long argued with essay in the field, our book’s title draws from it because of a very specific kind of intervention that the essay, and Bartholomae himself, made in the field and in our own specific trajectories as teachers of writing. In 2011, College English published an interview with Bartholomae marking the 25th anniversary of the essay’s publication, and in 2012 Derek Mueller pegged Bartholomae as the fourth most frequently cited scholar in College Composition and Communication. “Inventing the University” is built around five pieces of student writing, and, in many ways, Bartholomae’s career, too, has been built around student writing. In a statement about his teaching, Bartholomae writes that when he “began in the profession, if a piece of student writing were presented in public, it was used as the set up to a joke or it served as the punch line. That is seldom the case now.” This is true, and it is in large part due to Bartholomae’s own readings of student writing. 

Learning to teach as a graduate student of Pitt’s program and as a student of Bartholomae’s meant to learn to very seriously value student work and student thinking in our classrooms. It meant to see students as building—through their experiences and compositions—the very field of Composition Studies and its commitments to pedagogy. It meant to read student work with the same fierce engagement with which scholars read published and significant works in their fields of study. It meant to approach the language of others with slow, careful, and deliberate motion. Peter and I come to this collection as former graduate students who have been in a room in which the scholars who mentored us would talk about a single sentence—or even a single phrase—an undergraduate student used in their work for more than an hour. We come to this collection seeing our students’ (graduate and undergraduate) work as the driving force of our field. We wanted to make a book that both honored careful attention to student work in our field and brought that attention to bear on our current moment as scholars and teachers. How do we now think about “Inventing the University” in terms of the place of student work in composition studies? In our current political moment, how do students and scholars “invent the university” now? What are the structures of universities in/against which students make work in our courses? How have our students helped us to create, shape, disrupt, and revise our field?

One thing I have continued to understand over the years is that my experiences in early conversations about student work (in my graduate program, at conferences, in the scholarship I read, and in professional workshops) were often de-contextualized and made anonymous—meaning that the assignment, the student, the specific location was often left out of those discussions of student writing. We have found this to be a common impulse in the field at large over the years. In a way, one might understand a moment of de-contextualization of student work as a kind of New Critical approach to reading student work. At first, it can appear as a kind of liberatory method whereby all a teacher-reader would see is a text as it is and see only the text as its own object, albeit an object in-process. The drawback of course, as we know, being: all a teacher-reader would see is a text. This, of course, can act as a kind of erasure of the student, the teacher—and of the historical contexts, oppressive institutions, and troubling norms that may have produced the moment of student work to begin with. The writers in Inventing the Discipline seek to make those erasures, in our pedagogy and in our field, clearly visible.

Many of the essays here take on issues of erasure or decontextualization in a variety of ways. From asking questions about what gets left out of the conversation when scholars write about or quote from student work (Seitz, for example) to raising identity as central issue in thinking about what (and who) gets erased (Olivas, for example). But even as the essays in the collection approach the question of student work from a variety of angles and perspectives, one commonality does emerge: Without students and their work (their thinking, writing, engagement, and presence), there is no Composition Studies—no field of active creation, composition, and imagination from which to theorize Composition Studies as an area of inquiry. 

Certainly, we can find and recall many articles and essays over the past fifty years that include student writing as part of their intellectual projects. Attention to student writing itself is often fairly predictable, as Joseph Harris’s 2012 JAC article, “Using Student Texts in Composition Scholarship” shows. It is very common for student work, in these contexts, to be used to exemplify a scholar’s idea, or to raise specific questions about student work in the composition classroom that the scholar wants to raise. Inventing the Discipline: Student Work in Composition Studies also does some of this work, too; however, its primary goal is to recognize and explore the necessary and urgent role that students (and their work) play in the continual refiguring of our field. Put another way, this book focuses on what our students call us to do. The essays gathered here argue for student work, and students themselves, as central to both the writing course and the field of composition studies. The book challenges how we—both teachers and students—work with student writing and student projects. These chapters look with care at student work and student identities, and in doing so, offer new ways to read, teach with, consider, value, and contextualize the work students make in college writing courses. And it gives us great pleasure that some of the essays comprised in this collection take its very premise with a necessary grain of skepticism and critique.

Inventing the Discipline develops interesting ways of considering student work, defined broadly. Many of our contributors collaborate with students on these essays. And we are grateful to those students for their unique and significant contributions to this collection and our field. Taken together, our contributors inquire into what it means to teach writing within and beyond the university and what role student work, student identity, and student agency has in that project. We consider student work as the primary texts of our discipline, and Inventing the Discipline interrogates how we—readers and writers, teachers and students—might learn to understand this with more care, consciousness, and nuance. 

The collection includes, in addition to the full-length chapters, a series of vignettes in which we asked our contributors to reflect on the question of the ways student work has impacted their scholarship and/or their understanding of the field. The responses we received were powerful and impactful. Christie Toth calls her vignette, “Not Quite a Love-Letter-Manifesto” and opens by writing: “I’ve been mulling this question for weeks, composing soaring mental prose while driving back and forth between Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) and the University of Utah. The prompt makes me want to write love-letter-manifestos that will show too much of my heart to an academy I don’t especially trust.” Toth describes what might be one of the most powerful throughways in this collection, for who among us trusts or buys into the academy for which we work? It is from this place of both “belonging to the institution” (insomuch as we all work in one) and teaching our students to navigate, disrupt, and strategically resist the academic conventions that, as Toth suggests, make us feel distrustful even as we work inside them.

We think of the essays offered here as having a narrative of opening out. We begin with Moe’s “Pedagogical Genealogies” as a kind of launch point to inviting our readers to think with us about our collective pedagogical inheritances when it comes to thinking about students and their work. From here the anthology moves through its narrative of contestation and resistance. Seeing this process unfold, we have loved the ways our contributors put pressure on all the terms of our title—all the while keeping students and student agency at the center of the discussion.

Both Bruce Horner and Pritha Prasad ask us to think through the implications of student “work”—Horner opting for practice as a kind of replacement term, one that leaves room for more possibilities and transformation and Prasad inviting us to consider both the politics and the nature of “student work.” What does “work” mean? How might our students experience the “work” of any given class? As Prasad notes, in “(Anti)Racist World-Makings in the University: Reinventing Student Work,” student work is a layered term in and of itself. Prasad writes: “Although we as teachers of writing often think of the ‘work’ our students do in terms of course assignments, participation, and assessment, it is worth questioning how ‘work’ could mean something more to our students—and particularly those students who are multiply marginalized on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, or nationality.” Like Prasad’s essay, several other essays in this collection take up questions of the specific kinds of labors students engage to engage in the work of composition we ask of them. And as Prasad notes, those labors are not at all unbound to the intersecting and overlapping identity locations of each student.

Horner also reflects on the meaning and assumptions attached to student work. His chapter focuses on the way we think about what students make. He moves into the term “practice” as a nuanced and aesthetically accurate way of thinking of writing altogether. He writes, “The problem, then, resides not the unfinished character of some people and writing but with the presumption that there is any alternative. All writing, and knowledge, is practice—not in the sense of prelude but in the sense of refreshing, revising, and thereby renewing what is practiced (think of musical performances of ‘the same’ piece).” Horner’s invitation to think of writing as cyclical, as returning to practice to know again, to revisit its possibilities is, in fact, one of the hopes of our collection—to return again to our students, to understand the work they do, yes, but also to understand our own work as teacher-scholars (hopefully in that order).

As Gina Tranisi eloquently puts it, in “Respectfully, Michael: A Narrative Exploration of Student Writing and What We Might Make of Its Beautiful Disruptions”: 

Though our students might not be “inventing a language that is new” (Bartholomae 67), they are always (re)inventing themselves and their understanding of the experts at the front of their classrooms. It is not enough to allow room for that reinvention. We should book it a venue and throw it a party. There should be good music and confetti. A tiered cake. Fountain drinks. Perhaps this means deviating from a syllabus, sharing something that makes us vulnerable to our students, or making extra time to extend discussions that can’t be neatly tied within a fifty-minute class period. When composition focuses too narrowly on student work, or scholarly work, or homework, or work days, or work, or work, or work, we lose sight of the wide-angle lens. We lose sight of the person, the first-year writer, the thinker, the doer, the new-to-this-discourse-and-sweating-over-it, pen holder. Composition must find ways to break chilly academic conventions, must instead risk losing time or falling behind schedule or lightening the burdensome load of course readings if it means we can better connect—with our students, and with ourselves.

We relish in the playfulness and celebration of Tranisi’s essay, and the honest move to, as Toth puts it, show one’s “heart to an academy” we don’t always trust. It leads us to wonder: what play is involved in this “work,” what pleasure, what communion?

There are essays in the collection that think through questions of teacher development and consider the radical possibilities of the “university” and the teacher/student dynamic newly imagined. While Qualley and Sorlien ask teachers “to extend themselves by successive approximations, into new commonplaces, rituals and gestures, habits of mind, tricks of persuasion, and necessary connections by studying the writing that their students produce, especially in genres for which the teacher is not the expert,” other pieces ask us to imagine a more ideal university altogether. Louis M. Maraj, alongside twenty-one of his students––Danielle Althouse, Ciara Bailey, Amanda Beinhauer, Cailin Brashear, Jacqueline Bridges, Mia DiFelice, Jonathan Frye, Clara Grantier, Phillip Koman, Mary Lawrence, Lucas Lecomte, Christopher Minor, Ana Moser, Kayla Ortiz, David Patlakh, Victoria Pfefferle-Gillot, Hannah Polk, Yizhan Qu, Anna Rosenberg, Marina Sullivan, and Sarah Tolaymat––writes this: 

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.

What we particularly love about so many of the essays here (Maraj et al. included) is the visionary ideas put forward, the leaning into the possibility that all the things we love about teaching writing can actually help to transform broken systems, to remake the field itself through teaching, through collaboration—and through the messiness that is inevitable in those endeavors. In the vignette by Derek Tanios Imad Mkhaiel and Jacqueline Rhodes, this messiness is made beautifully visible through both its arguments and form. And Jessica Enoch explores it as part of pedagogical courage—a term she revises from Mina Shaughnessy’s “professional courage” in her essay, “Diving In.” Enoch writes, “We can dive in as researchers, for sure, but, for me the gathering of the courage happens in the messiness of the classroom, when there is no room yet for scholarly detachment, when the research question is not well-formed, when the writing and the student are in close range, and when the affect of the classroom is still prickly and present. That’s when pedagogical courage is necessary to dive in.” So many of the writers here put pressure on the concepts of work, of student work, of the university as a site of grave brokenness and great promise.

Bernice Olivas, for example, asserts that “our students don’t just invent the university, they reinvent themselves as a part of their university, their college, their program, even their writing class. They will do it repeatedly as they move through academia.” Bringing attention to both the local context of student work and the fashioning of a “self,” Olivas invites us to center student identity as we think about the impact of our students and their work. Likewise, Sherita Roundtree positions this student-centering through “storying” as an empowering and complex pathway though which students encounter “composition.” She writes, “storying allow[s] students to both reclaim and resist narratives about when and how we value experiential knowledge around issues of language and dialects.” She focuses our attention on the very kind of work students are asked to do. She elaborates, “When students have direct access to local discourse communities that speak back to their visions of themselves, they are able to help themselves and their peers dismantle knowledge privileging and build self-directed knowledge seeking platforms.”

Also in line with writing that brings students into the agential practice of meaning making, KJ Rawson, alongside three of his students, Mariel Aleman, Alice Galvinhill, and Keith Plummer, outlines the political and practical impact of student engagement with and participation in the creation of the Digital Transgender Archive. They write, 

Unlike most writing that students do in college, this type of collaborative, technical writing requires moderately high stakes precision and objectivity (or perhaps more accurately, critically-reflexive subjectivity) with the pressure of a waiting public audience who immediately encounters and relies upon the information students supply. Students are well aware that writing errors that may be minor in other contexts––such as spelling mistakes, accidental pluralizations, or getting a date wrong, for example––can result in effectively hiding the item they are processing.

This is a powerful moment in this chapter, whereby we understand student work as quite literally the work of preservation through language, the work of survival and visibility through the gathering of information. This kind of collective action, documenting, and real-world effects contains all the wishes of a writing teacher—the hope that students will do work that matters (to them and, if we’re honest, to us), the hope that students will understand and engage the power of language itself. 

There is no better example of collective action and real-world effects than the kind described by Khirsten L. Scott and Louis Maraj in “DBLAC and Student Writing: Turning Individual Pain into Collective Gain.” In this essay, Scott and Maraj tell the origin story of DBLAC, revealing the insidious ways that racial injustice informs students’ understanding of themselves. Scott, describing a racist incident in a graduate seminar, writes, “The inescapable weight of this exchange initiated a series of violent interactions that took parts of me never to return.” There are moments in the essays gathered here where teachers of writing and scholars of writing pedagogy are asked to grapple with the risks students take even entering a classroom—the risk of their teacher’s racism, for example, or the risk of writing at all. Treviene Harris, Nozomu Saito, Amanda Awanjo, Sam Lane, Nelesi Rodriquez, Tanya Shirazi, Khirsten L. Scott, and Cory Holding capture these notions of risk in safety in their chapter, “Student Writing on Student Writing,” in which they build on Toni Morrison’s notion of “response-ability” as they consider student writers’ risk and safety in the classrooms and rhetorical contexts of the university.

We conclude the collection with Vershawn Young’s “Gettin Crunk with Composition Studies” as a way of gesturing forward to the work the collection invites our field to do as we consider our students and what we owe to them in terms of building (or perhaps dismantling) a “discipline” that truly commits itself to un-disciplining in order to address the racism, sexism, and heterosexism that is undeniably a part of our shared disciplinary history. If we understand ourselves as being committed to the value of language, and as Seitz puts it, “language we admire,” then perhaps it is useful to turn back to Seitz’s questions about this language that makes our disciplinary understandings. “What kinds of ‘language’?—put to what uses?—do we admire? Who is this ‘we,’ and how do we account for its internal differences and conflicts? Why do we ‘admire’ one kind or use of language over another, and what can we learn from examining our preferences?” Young offers the answers to these questions as he both interrogates the language the field has historically admired, and as he enacts and imagines how we might admire otherwise, how we might invent the undiscipline, how we might (through our focus on student agency and student identity) transform our pedagogy and our own writing practices. In the end, perhaps we should have called the book Uninventing the Undiscipline(d). Perhaps it has been the ways resistance moves through any disciplined practices of writing and teaching that has been at work in all the writing gathered here. In his critique and reflection on “the discipline” of Composition Studies, Young ends his vignette, “Cuz I know I’m going to win when it comes to my own tongue! You ain’t got no claims, no authority, to discipline that!” 

Works Cited

Harris, Joseph. “Using Student Texts in Composition Scholarship.” Journal of Advanced Composition, vol. 32, nos. 3-4, 2012, pp. 667-94. 

Mueller, Derek. “Grasping Rhetoric and Composition by Its Long Tail: What Graphs Can Tell Us about the Field’s Changing Shape.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 64. no. 1, Sept. 2012, pp. 195-223. 

Schilb, John. “Reconsiderations: ‘Inventing the University’ at 25: An Interview with David Bartholomae.” College English, vol. 73, no. 3, Jan. 2011, pp. 260-82.