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Inventing the University, One Student at a Time

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[This post originally published on February 17, 2011.]

Beth McGregor came to college from a Midwestern town where she attended a fairly small public school: AP classes were a rarity, and she couldn’t remember writing anything longer than four pages in high school.  Then quite suddenly she was on the west coast, at Stanford, taking  four courses that demanded a lot of reading and writing.  Every week; often every day.

In David Bartholomae’s telling phrase, Beth needed to “invent the university” for herself.  That is, she needed to learn its conventions and customs, its ways of engaging with ideas and texts. As she put it, she needed to figure out how to become a “smart Stanford student.” I learned about Beth’s progress first during interviews during her first year of college (she was participating in Stanford’s longitudinal study of writing) and then when we did a directed reading course together on “writing as performance.”  A stand-up comic, Beth was used to performing, but she had never thought of writing as performative. As we worked together, Beth reflected a lot on her first year at college, eventually writing a one-woman performance to demonstrate part of what it meant to her to “invent the university.”

We videotaped Beth’s performance:

Video Link : 2260

She stands at a writing desk, her first college assignment in front of her. Flanking her on either side are two friends who are playing her demonic internal editors. As she begins to write the opening sentence of her essay, one of the “editors” silences her, telling her to move that sentence down to the middle of the essay. The other says she’s never going to get it right. This attempt to write the first sentence goes on for several painful (and hilarious) minutes, until Beth bows her head and says “That’s it. I can’t do it. I can’t write this essay.”

I remember thinking how often I had felt just that way as a student, not just in my first year but later on, in graduate school and beyond:  “I just can’t write it.” But Beth doesn’t give up. Instead, she decides to put on the trappings of the “smart student,” glasses perched on her  nose, a cup of tea at hand, her hair twisted into a bun. Then she gives herself a pep talk: “So now, Miss Elizabeth,” she intones, “let’s write that first sentence.” The result is so convoluted that she later looked back on with great amusement. But as she said, the important thing was to write it, to get past her fears and try to sound like the “smart student.” Beth did what most of us do—she tried to imitate what she thought academic writing should sound like. She didn’t get it right at first, but she was on her way to inventing the university and to becoming a confident college writer.

I think of Beth often because I hope that the classes I teach and the books I write help students imagine themselves as writers and as “smart” students.  I hope that they help students invent the university for themselves. Of course, some would say that it’s the other way around—that the university is really inventing, shaping, and manipulating students, making them into its own image. There’s plenty of truth to that statement: we’re not called “professors” for nothing.  But I think most teachers of writing want to turn out not little replicas of ourselves or students who think and read and write just as we do, but rather students who shape us as much as we shape them.

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Although Beth's performance is funny by the end, that surface trappings, tea and hair-pulled-back can have writerly outcomes, the opening, the caustic internal editing by the two voices in her head as she begins, made me cringe.  I am reminded of Thomas Mann:   “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”  Two things are critical to what you say here.  The first is that you, yourself, admit to an ongoing self-doubt when tackling writing—Mann, definitely—and that you say about your classes "that they help students invent the university for themselves" as well as that a reciprocity develops between the writer and the professor of writing.  Sharing the struggle we all have with communicating clearly in the way Beth does here, as a performance, is invaluable to creating that relationship.  The truth is that becoming a "smart student" is important as we find ourselves being taken seriously, being heard, and as part of a community that values a member's voice.  (I also love how the medium reinforces the idea of writing as performance!)  I will certainly share this with future students and a writing professor or two.  Thanks.  Andrea A. Lunsford‌ #writing as performance

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.