“Inventing the University” and Critical Pedagogy: Bartholomae and Shor

In Studies in Writing Pedagogy these last few weeks we’ve read two landmark texts from the 80s: David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” (1983) and Ira Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (1987). Both are on the Program’s exam list. “Inventing” has literally been cited at least a thousand times since it was written; Critical Teaching, at least 655 (thanks, Google). Heavy duty. On top of this, we’ve had the awesome privilege of Skyping with these scholars in class. We spoke with David last week and we’re IM’ing with Ira in a few more.

I don’t want to pretend I know a lot about how these texts have been taken up in the field since their publication, but my distant understanding is that most folks would not put Bartholomae’s pedagogy hand-in-hand with Shor’s. Word on the street is that the former is often interpreted as conservative and the latter as radical. Yet, as Steve likes to say, those are the “cartooned” versions of these folks. The truth seems that while there are important differences between them, they also share some attitude toward students and student writing and both see their pedagogies as liberating.

In “Inventing” Bartholomae argues that students struggle to produce academic writing because they cannot fully invent/imagine their readers as scholars, whose discourses are privileged and specialized. When students do write for us, then, they instead parrot the language of authority (teachers, coaches) instead of writing from genuine invention or inquiry. He analyzes examples from a set of 500 placement essays at Pitt, claiming a text that “continually refers to its own language and the language of others” (412) is the superior text. But getting to that level is tough — if not impossible — for a freshman writer. Language, as “code,” should demonstrate an understanding of one’s own position that “can work self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but [their] own” (413). So-called sentence-level deficiencies found in basic writers are not symptomatic of illiteracy, then, but of a writer trying (and often failing) to understand “key words with the complete statements within which they are already operating” — the utterances of academic discourse.

Given this knowledge, then, what would Bartholomae do with basic writers?

His model is found in Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: A Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course (1986), which he published with Anthony Petrosky a year after “Inventing.” Their curriculum includes multiple strands: students read a mix of required texts — including Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Mead’s Blackberry Winter, among others — but also read books of their own choosing. At the same time, they write their own compositions, sometimes based on the readings but more often on the course themes and their lives. Most importantly, they read and respond to each others’ texts in seminar. The purpose of such a curriculum is stated early in the book:

We want students to learn to compose a response to their reading (and, in doing so, to learn to compose a reading) within the conventions of the highly conventional language of the university classroom. We are, then, teaching the language of the university and, if our course is a polemic,it is because we believe that the language of the university can be shown to value “counterfactuality,” “individuation,” “potentiality,” and “freedom.” (4-5)

For Bartholomae and Petrosky, then, teaching students to navigate the conventions of the university is a liberatory act because the university itself values liberation. Introducing students to these academic moves, gestures, ways of reading and ways of writing will lead to better things for them, and, presumably, for (and possibly because of) their various subject positions. The place to begin, then, is with student writing:

A course in reading and writing whose goal is to empower students must begin with silence, a silence students must fill. It cannot begin by telling students what to say. And it must provide a method to enable students to see what they have said — to see and characterize the acts of reading and writing represented by their discourse. (7)

Shor’s book, partially an account of CUNY’s Open Admission period in the 70s, starts with a scathing critique of the community college system (the “budget college”), and vocationalism in particular. At best, community colleges do absolutely nothing for their students except dole out meaningless state-controlled credentials; at worst, they “disguise inequality” (23) and further domesticates them. Community colleges absorb workers at times when the economy has a surplus pool of laborers. It’s a mechanistic structure that denies worker-students full participation in labor while at the same time requires them to work part-time at shitty jobs that enslave them. Vocationalism in particular:

“…is a way of keeping workers materially and ideologically in their place. Vocationalism economically reproduces stratification and politically retards alternative thought. The curriculum enforces the rules of working life. Employers do not want workers who think for themselves or who demand and deserve raises and advancement.” (24)

Vocationalism “narrows human development” because is encourages subjects to remain acritical, to be duped into false consciousness which “conditions people to police themselves by internalizing the ideas of the ruling elite” (55).

In response to such false consciousness, Shor applies many of the concepts Freire laid out in Brazil in the 60s (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness). He advocates flexible agendas/lessons based on listening and open dialogue; he expects teachers to “wither away” so that student discourse may be privileged; classes have a strong sense of community where authority is as de-centered as possible; classes are fun; but most important of all (at least in terms of Freire and conscientização), objects, events, texts, etc. from ordinary life must serve as the primary text (i.e. hamburgers, marriage contracts, work) of study.

Like Bartholomae and Petrosky in FAC, Shor lays out his ideas for such curricula. At times they feel equally scripted as Bartholomae and Petrosky’s, but the “plans” themselves are not as mapped (perhaps because Shor describes himself in his classroom, alone — a point I want to return to in a moment). His courses get students to examine the world around them through the ordinary: to reflect on the nature of work, to criticize the present by way of an ideal future (Utopia), and to rethink gender via marriage contracts.

One of the key differences between Shor and Bartholomae, though, is the timing and amount of reading that is done in the course. For Bartholomae, students must fill the silence, but the texts are the primary starting point — literature and nonfiction alike. For Shor, however, the primary text is “daily life” and “ordinary routines.” Although he does assign readings, they aren’t introduced until after they’ve written a significant amount. In his chapter on the work unit, for example, Shor says he doesn’t introduce readings until “the class dialogue has matured enough to support the introduction of readings coordinated with the problem-theme” (140). That is, the class does not deal with readings until students have: spoken and written with each other about their jobs, participated in several pre-writing exercises (including freewriting), practiced dictation and voicing, sketched a prototype for a bad teacher, analyzed their own job experiences (and limited power in those jobs), and reflected on some essential questions about labor more generally.*

We talked a lot in class about definitions of critical pedagogy and whether or not we practiced it. At Syracuse, I’d argue that we endorse a pedagogy that leans more heavily toward Bartholomae than Shor. Our shared curriculum starts with reading, as a critical encounter. The required 600-page textbook, in fact, is called Critical Encounters with Texts, and features multiple genres. Many of the readings are abstract (if not downright theoretical) and challenging for freshmen who are mostly used to a curriculum of canonical literature in high school. At the same time, those readings are purposefully edgy (meant as literal encounters) and provide an occasion for students to see the world differently. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

Another difference between Bartholomae and Shor is the contexts of their curricula. Bartholomae articulates a classroom at a private college with a team of several other compositionists sharing the curriculum. Shor, as near as I can tell, is working alone at CUNY during Open Admissions. From this, some questions:

  • How do these contexts affect the arguments and curricula? Would Bartholomae use a similar curriculum with students who aren’t basic writers? Would Shor teach differently at a private university?
  • How does the pressure of the WPA affect the outcomes and sustainability of a curriculum? (At Syracuse, I would be hard pressed to defend a Shor-like curriculum, especially as a graduate student, since we are accountable to the college and to our students via grades.)
  • Are community colleges still instruments of vocationalism? Or going the other way, is an undergraduate education — regardless of context — now vocational?


Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. The Guilford Press, 1985. 134-165. Print.

Bartholomae, David, and Tony Petrosky. Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1986. Print.

Bartholomae, David, and John Schilb. “‘Inventing the University’ at 25: An Interview with David Bartholomae.” College English. 73.3 (2011). : 260-282. Print.

Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching and Everyday Life. University of Chicago Press, 1987. Print.

—. “What is Critical Literacy?” Critical Literacy in Action: Writing Words, Changing Worlds/A Tribute to the Teachings of Paulo Freire. Ed. Ira Shor & Caroline Pari. Boynton/Cook, 1999. 1-30. Print.

*As an aside, Peter Elbow also discussed how much more his students wrote than read in his famous exchange with Bartholomae in the mid-90s (see CCC 46/February 1995).