Developing Academic Identity While Inventing the University

Bernice Olivas

What Means University? 

Reading “Inventing the University” by David Bartholomae for the first time as an undergraduate, was to hear Margaret Laurence’s unforgettable Morag Gunn from The Diviners in my head asking, “what means university?” I heard her voice, her syntax, in my head because she was the only literary character I identified with throughout my undergrad. I read that book so many times I began to think in her voice. I got her struggle to build an identity she could live with at a bone deep level. I wish this were that story where a great literature teacher gave me that great book that got me through college, but The Diviners was given to me by a homeless Vietnam vet who panhandled on my walk to school. I gave him two bucks for coffee three days a week, but on that cold morning all I had was a $10, and it was my last $10, and this homeless man felt bad for my broke college ass. He gave me the book and added a whole new dimension to my world. 

See, Morag was from a marginalized community, broke, she grew up a hot mess with people rich in love and trauma. She had no idea how to do school, society, or life. She asked stupid questions in her head like “what means principal” (40). I didn’t know how to do school or life either and constantly wondered to myself things like “what means office hours?” What is important is that Morag wondered “what means” about things everyone else understood. What is important is that Morag built her identity as a writer, woman, and mother out of the answers she found around her. See, Morag didn’t invent the world around her, she crafted an identity with the answers she found in the world. She became a new Morag to survive each new situation.  

I didn’t only invent the university, didn’t just take up language and discourse, so much as I invented Bernice the student, then the writer, then the scholar. These identities understood what it meant to be a Boise State University student, then a McNair Scholar, and finally a PhD holding scholar. Bartholome says that students must “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” (4). I would say students also craft whole new ways of being that merge these new languages, these new ways of “selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing” so that they become part of how they define themselves. So, I am not being facetious when I ask, “what means university?” to the student who must invent the university to survive the university. If they cannot answer that question, if they cannot find the right questions to ask to begin constructing a healthy academic identity, then what are their chances of success? 

In light of the vast amount of scholarship produced by peoples of color, first-generational scholars, queer scholars, and working-class scholars, it is difficult to ignore that when “inventing the university,” when taking up the language of university, students are also inventing a new identity—one we can call the academic identity. This academic identity—a student’s own understanding of what it means to be a student at their university or college—is critical to how students navigate the university. It is my argument that student writing offers us insight into that developing identity which creates the opportunity for us to help them develop their identity in positive, self-affirming ways that will contribute to their success. 

What I am saying is 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. This identity, this self, will learn new ways to talk, and write, and dress. They will learn that office hours are hours set aside for them to ask questions; they will learn that it is okay to ask questions! Survival for the first-generation student, the student of color, the returning student, the basic writer, the ESL learner means figuring out for themselves “what does it mean to me to belong to this campus, this class, this place, right now?”  

A thousand factors influence those answers, yet that performative role identity the student creates is critical to their success. The answers to “what means university” must include “a place where I belong” because when it doesn’t, our students fail, our students are traumatized, and our students are silenced. So, we must reimagine inventing the university so that it includes facilitating the development of student academic identity. It must include helping them to understand what it means for them to be students on our campus, in our programs, at our institutions. 


The Performative Role Identity 

Sociologist Peter Burke’s Identity Control Theory (ICT) can help us understand how identity develops and why it is so important to read student writing through a lens that acknowledges that students are in this complicated process of developing a new identity. First, ICT acknowledges that we have many identities, and they overlap, interact, and even conflict with each other. However, it also suggests that identities can be broken into four categories: personal, role, social, and collective. The personal identity is how we best understand our physical self—gender, race, sexuality. This identity is our core identity. The role identity is connected to the expectations we encounter in our various roles and how we understand them. 

Role identity helps us understand what it means to be mother or father, worker or friend. Social identity develops in relation to how we are treated in society and helps us to understand what it means to be a member of our society. These identities are influenced by friend groups, social communities, or special interest groups—for example, a student might define part of their social identity by calling themselves a gamer. Collective identity is developed in relation to ideological-based social grouping and helps us develop ideological worldviews. We understand ourselves as political, as spiritual, as belonging to nation or state. These identities are constantly being acknowledged, ignored, reinforced, or challenged, by the people around us. Interaction with others has a real impact on how we understand our ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. 

This means that interactions with faculty have a distinct effect on how students understand themselves as learners. Burke explains that we develop identity looking for the answers to “what does it mean” questions. In “Inventing the University,” the student learns to speak and think and be in the academic environment. The student is associating behaviors modeled in interactions with faculty, staff, and other students to answer the question “what does it mean to be a student at this time and place?” It’s a complicated, messy, and often unconscious process to find the answers to those questions in the world around us and to eventually build an answer set that becomes deeply meaningful to us. Once we invest in an answer set, we strive to behave in ways that honor that answer set. 

In the case of college students, their academic identity is a role identity. It is rooted in how they understand the role of college student. Considering rapidly changing student demographics—increasingly our students are first-generation, underrepresented, or returning students—it is possible to extrapolate that many of our students are starting at the beginning of this process. These students may be less likely to find answers to the question “what does it mean to be a successful college student?” in their communities or in their home environments. Without answers to these questions, college students struggle to define themselves as college students and they struggle to find a place in the academic community. This makes it harder for students to master the institutional knowledge that they need to succeed. In addition, there is rarely anyone in their home communities who can offer them narratives, images, or advice for being a successful college student. 

This tells me that it is critical for writing teachers to facilitate students in developing a strong, resilient academic identity. Dr. Ann M. Penrose’s 2002 “quantitative descriptive study” which examined “[first-generation students’] perceptions of their academic literacy skills and their performance and persistence in college” supports my argument (437). Penrose is a composition and writing center scholar at North Carolina State University. Her research focused on the differences between the ways first-generation students and continuing-generation students perceived their abilities in the areas of preparedness, retention rates, and their own perceptions of their academic literacy skills. Her “results indicate[d] that first-generation students’ self-perceptions represent critical factors in the college experience, underscoring the importance of helping students forge identities as members of academic communities” (437). Her research showed that students who didn’t feel like they belonged, who struggled to identify with the rest of the student body or faculty, were more likely to struggle and drop out even when their work was on par with their successful peers. 

She argues that “writing teachers in particular should take this challenge to heart—not just because we have access and opportunity by virtue of the near-universal freshman requirement and small class size, but because the source of students’ insecurities may be situated very specifically in composition teachers’ domain of academic concern” (457). Although this is just one study, the implications are important because, as Penrose points out, “helping students see themselves as members of the academic community may be the most important challenge faced in the university at large and in writing classrooms in particular” (458; emphasis mine).

It is my observation that not only do students have to invent the university, but they also need to invent the role identity of academic to survive in the university. I am suggesting that student writing and student stories are some of the best mechanisms for facilitating the growth of that identity. The more we encourage students to write reflectively on their own understanding of their own identity on campus, the more they can begin to add to their academic identity or begin crafting a new one. To do this, we need to let them dwell on the “what does it mean questions” and let them reflect on the answers they find. We need to help them find those answers through our assignments, our feedback, and sharing out own stories. Perhaps sharing our own stories with our students is one of the most important things we can do. 


What Means Learner

I remember the exact moment my academic identity snapped into being and I knew what it meant for me to be an academic. I was at a reading by Dr. Victor Villanueva at Boise State in 2009. The English department hosted the reading and Helen, the co-director of our Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, urged me to attend. She said that Dr. Villanueva was exactly the kind of scholar I needed in my body of knowledge. He was First-generation, he was Latino, he was in my field, and he was a teacher. However, it was not until I read the article he was presenting that I realized that he was writing about many of the issues I grappled with then and continue to grapple with now. 

 In preparation for the reading, I dived into his work and became more and more enamored with his perspective. He was articulating concepts, issues, and questions that hovered just out of my reach. That night he read “‘Memoria’ Is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourse of Color.” The article is a beautifully segmented essay that carefully meshes not just languages—English, Spanish and Spanglish—but genre as well. He mixes poetry, narrative, and formal academic discourse to explain why people, especially people of color, need to be able to utilize “Memoria.” Ultimately, the “thesis” statement is simply, “Memory simply cannot be adequately portrayed in the conventional discourse of the academy” (12). 

Memoria, according to Villanueva, is a forgotten or ignored rhetorical strategy typically interpreted as a literal translation either of memory (meaning things we have memorized) or as the body of knowledge of a rhetor. Villanueva re-imagines Memoria as a richer form of memory. Memoria encompasses our individual memories and lived experience, as well as our cultural and historical memories. He suggests that these memories––our histories—are as important to our scholarly writing as logos, pathos, or ethos. What I have learned, and keep learning, is that memory—memories—are always present. They are always at the tip of our tongue, the edge of our consciousness. We write the important ones repeatedly as we explore academic discourse. I have written this memory, Villanueva on stage, a thousand times in the last six years. I have written and rewritten this memory of him reading in a voice that sounds like home, using expressions that I know but do not understand because he is Puerto Rican and I am Mexican and neither of us really speaks Spanish. I have written of the power of his words, the charisma of his personality, of the things I learned. I have written it in many ways, some of them so coded in academic language that only I knew they were about this memory.

Villanueva challenges readers to re-see the importance of memory, lived experience, and history for the marginalized scholar, researcher, and teacher of writing and rhetoric. He describes Memoria as a sharp-edged tool that allows us to rip through the layers of indifference and ignorance so an academic system that is still disproportionately white and male can hear us. He asks readers to conceptualize writing as a process in which the writer engages in analysis that simultaneously explores what the writer knows and how the writer has acquired that knowledge. He says: 

For the person of color, it does more. The narrative of the person of color validates. It resonates. It awakens, particularly for those of us who are in institutions where our numbers are few. We know that though we really are Gramsci's exceptions––those who “through ‘chance’ [… have] had opportunities that the thousand others in reality could not or did not have” –our experiences are in no sense unique but are always analogous to other experiences from among those exceptions. So more than narrating the life of one of color so that “one creates this possibility, suggests the process, indicates the opening,” in Gramsci's terms … we remember the results of our having realized the possibility, discovered the process, found the opening, while finding that there is in some sense very little change on the other side. (15)

 At the time, I was struck by the argument that narratives, memory, our history, and our ways of telling stories are academic when they are used to do the work of academics—questioning, critiquing, and creating new knowledge. I saw myself as a member of this community of scholars of color who were using Memoria to make knowledge. I knew, for the first time in four years, without a doubt, that I belonged here. 

When Villanueva said, “Looking back, we look ahead, and giving ourselves up to the looking back and the looking ahead, knowing the self, and, critically, knowing the self in relation to others, maybe we can be an instrument whereby students can hear the call” (17), he was showing us how to use student writing to help our students make their “personal public and the public personalized” on their terms, in their own voices (10). He was reminding us that our student does not “invent the university “alone—they do it in relation to us. The student is not learning 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”; they are developing an identity that will allow them to join us at the table. It’s on us to help them develop that identity in a way that supports their voices and validates their ways of knowing (Bartholomae 4). 


Student Writing

The big question in this complicated discussion about inventing universities, adopting languages, or developing identities, is “how do we do it in the classroom?” The answer is irritatingly simple yet complicated, and messy. We center the student—the whole student. We teach rhetoric and literacy and critical thinking and all the things in context to the whole student. We teach beginning by asking the student to think about who they are as a literate human, what that literacy can do for them. We ask them to ask themselves what they want from all this literacy and rhetoric we are giving them. We ask them to write about the literate humans they come from, the literate humans they are interacting with in college, and we ask them to look around and find themselves on campus, to find their peoples in our histories. We give them writers, academics, mentors, and faculty who look, talk, feel, and remember their shared histories. We welcome them to our universities. So, I welcome you to meet one of my students, in his own words, as he navigates who he is as literate human, in a writing class, at Salt Lake Community College, in 2018. 

I was raised by Poem 

I was raised by

Carne Asada eating

Meat loving food

Tacos made with such flavor

That you want to seconds

“Ven aqui y sirvete mas”

Kind of Man


Big Attitude personality

Selena loving

Dancing to Salsa

And Reggaeton

Sorta man


Some thick headed

Big blue, number sign shirt

Hat wearing

Low cut pants

Free in the wind

“Aye, What you want man?”

Type of Man


Some Beer drinking

Loud music playing

Inviting whole family tree

Loving times

To Fight breaking out

Type of family man


The Literacy Narrative 

My own literacies, not just reading, writing, and language, but my understanding of the world around me and my goals have been shaped by my experiences in my life, my actions, and my choices. I’ve come to discover my own form of literacies and identities through my own experiences in life. From that, I am able to discover what makes me unique to be able to place myself in today’s society.    

My Name, Ricardo, comes from my father’s part of the family. My Uncle’s name was passed down to me after my uncle passed away before I was born. I asked my parents before why they decided to name me after someone who passed away and who I never got a chance to meet. They mentioned to me that my uncle was supposed to be my godfather. At times, my parents would mention to me how I would remind them of my uncle; such as, the way I talked and walked. 

Later in life, I felt at some point I understood why my parents named me after my uncle. Maybe my parents were providing him a second chance in life by allowing us to share the same name. Looking back it's quite funny on now how I consider my name not only resembling myself but as a passageway for my uncle getting to live his life through me. As if he’s living and going through my experiences through my eyes. I believe names can be universal, so maybe he really is getting a second chance with our name Ricardo. 

I came to accept my name and the uniqueness that also came with it. Since I’m Hispanic my name is pronounced in two ways. In the English language, my name is pronounced Ree-Car-do. In Spanish, my name is pronounced rre-carr-do with the “r” rolling. This is a uniqueness that I’ve come to adore and embrace. People pronounce my name in their own way. For example, some would roll their R’s in English and some won't roll their R’s in Spanish. I enjoy it! Made it seem like my name could come in different aspects. My name Ricardo became this new feeling of finally accepting myself. 

It’s the same way I relate when I talk about where I come from. When people ask where I was born, I say Las Vegas not Mexico even though I was born in Mexico. The reason I say Las Vegas is because that’s where most of my memories are from. Being raised in Vegas in my childhood made me handle situations on my own. It’s like street talk. If there was an issue, we were supposed to handle the issue ourselves. It's like the phrase “Streets aren’t made for everyone. That's why they made sidewalks.” Being born in Mexico I feel like it doesn’t define who I am today. What defines me in the past are my experiences that came from my childhood in Las Vegas. 

What defines me now, at least in part, is my college journey. I am again, learning a new literacy and merging with the literacies I bring from my family, from Las Vegas, and from my experiences. I created a welcome page to explain my ideas and personality. Looking back into the story I’ve created; I didn’t mention really who I am. I didn’t add the selfless actions on what I’ve done for my family, friends, and even random strangers at times because I've never really spoken about it. People will ask me each time I did something nice. “Why did you do that for me or how are you so kind?” To me, doing acts of “Nice Deeds” should be human decency. I felt when people asked me that question, it's like they gave up on humans on their kindness. I feel like it placed me as a unique person with my friends since I will always do what I can and never ask for anything in return. 

As I go forward, I want the opportunity to write my life with my heart’s content. Allow me to explain here: the way I lived my life so far is an amazing experience. Not how I pictured it being, but it is a good life so far. I want to be able to document everything down one day on what I've accomplished in life. It’s amusing considering that I want to write down all these experiences by forming crazy sentences and having an imagination on creating a story through my own experiencesHaving the chance to see what I’ve done and writing as freely as the wind has helped me, shape me, and made me unique from everyone else. To become a better version of who I am today. To express myself in paper by writing.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, spring 1986, pp. 4-23.

Burke, Peter. “Identities and Social Structure: The 2003 Cooley-Mead Award Address.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 1, Mar. 2004, pp. 5-15.  

Penrose, Ann M. “Academic Literacy Perceptions and Performance: Comparing First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 36, no. 4, May 2002, pp. 437-61. 

Villanueva, Victor. “Memoria Is a Friend of Ours: on the Discourse of Color.” College English, vol. 67, no. 1, Sept. 2004, pp. 9-19.