[From the Archives]: An Interview with David Bartholomae

Today’s post is an excerpt of an interview with David Bartholomae, from Issue 69 (Fall 2007). This interview took place in Jeffrey J. Williams’ office at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, on 8 August 2007. It was conducted by Williams, then editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia, then the assistant to the review while a PhD student in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon.

Composition is the main artery of English departments. A course in composition or basic writing is a requirement that almost every university has and that English departments almost always staff. Before the 1970s most English professors taught writing, but since then composition has developed into a distinct field, with its own vein of research, journals and organizations, and those who specialize in it. David Bartholomae is a leading figure in composition. But, initially trained as a Victorianist, he has stressed composition’s link with literature rather than its separation, and resisted trends toward “writing without teachers” or without academic models.

Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching (Bedford, 2005) collects a wide sampling of Bartholomae’s articles, such as his well-known “Inventing the University.” See also his survey of “Composition” in Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, ed. David G. Nicholls (MLA, 2007), and his debate with Peter Elbow, “Writing with Teachers,” CCC 46.1 (1995). Alongside his essays, Bartholomae has had substantial influence with his textbook, now entering its eigth edition, Ways of Reading, co-written with Anthony R. Petrosky (Bedford, 1987; 7th ed. 2005).

Williams Composition is probably the most commonly taught course in English departments, yet it often has an iffy position, especially next to literature. How do you see composition fitting in an English department?

Bartholomae I’m on record as saying that composition with a small “c”—that is, an attention to writing in school—is best sponsored in the English department. I’m really concerned about what’s happening across the country where more and more programs are splitting out and becoming self-standing composition or undergraduate writing programs, drawing TAs from all over the curriculum with no departmental status. There are a lot of reasons why I think that’s a problem. Some are just structural. I think that, over time, if you don’t have departmental status, you don’t have a position at the big table, and you lose a certain level of clout. If the dean for whom this was a brilliant idea is no longer the dean and there’s a new dean who needs to make budget cuts, that’s the area that’s going to get the cut. It doesn’t have the same stability. No one’s in a position to speak for it at the dean’s level the way that, once upon a time, it was possible to talk about composition as part of the undergraduate mission.

It also says what I think is wrong, that the work is independent of the research mission of the university, that the work of teaching undergraduate writing doesn’t require or rely upon faculty paid to do research and given time to think about what they’re doing. So it’s played into a distinction, in today’s American university, where there’s a teaching faculty and a research faculty, and the teaching faculty teaches in the lower division or undergraduate curriculum, does the required service courses, and the research faculty teaches English majors and graduate students, and then gets all the support that goes along with them.

I’ve been around long enough to know that composition is uncomfortable in English departments, and one of the reasons is that it has to be accountable to people who don’t care about it or don’t know about it or who carry an ancient prejudice about having to teach it. It’s like you get that smell on your hands and it never comes off, and so you’re waiting for the moment in which you graduate and you don’t have to do it anymore. I think that English departments need to think about undergraduate writing, why it’s important, and how to value it.

You can read the rest of the interview through Duke University Press, available here.


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