Inventing our university: student-faculty collaboration in critical university studies.

Author:Steffen, Heather
Position:Teaching Critical University Studies

Composition scholar David Bartholomae famously argues that "Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion...he has to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline, on the other. He must learn to speak our language. Or he must dare to speak it or to carry off the bluff" (61). Bartholomae's point is that learning academic writing is a trickier business than we imagine. It forces students to claim a starting point, a place of authority from which to begin "writing their way into a new community" before they have attained (or realized they possess) authority over the subject (Bartholomae 78). "Inventing the university" means re-inventing the university's discourse over and over until the student can "appropriate (or be appropriated by)" the language of scholarly argument (Bartholomae 64). What strikes me about Bartholomae's opening lines is the implication that somewhere out there lies "the university" and that the student's job is to locate it and enter through the gateway of academic discourse.

In what follows, I tug at the threads of Bartholomae's statements to explore the ways that student-faculty collaboration in critical university studies might reveal spaces of agency, knowledge, and solidarity that open up when we pause together at moments of assemblage, mimickry, and compromise. At the moments, I mean, before the university's invention is a fait accompli, when we encounter the university as an unfinished institution and when we might "dare to speak" what we want from it, to call its bluffs, to mock rather than mimic its "requirements of convention." I hope to show that partnering with undergraduate students in critical university studies research offers an opportunity to multiply these moments of possibility.

My interest in collaborative research grows out of my participation as a researcher and mentor on All Worked Up: A Project about Student Labor. My partners on the project are two University of California, Santa Barbara, seniors, Chelsea Brandwein and Erika Carlos, and a recent alumna, Nastacia Schmoll. Together, we are conducting a series of interviews with UCSB student workers, asking them about their jobs, career plans, educational experiences, finances, and how working affects their academic, social, and family lives. Our analysis of the interviews is qualitative and situated within critical university studies, student affairs, pedagogical studies, and public debates about higher education. As a project fusing research, writing, and social justice goals, we present our analyses in multiple modes: we are creating a website at, writing in academic and public genres, attending conferences, facilitating workshops and community discussions, and collecting footage for a documentary film. All Worked Up will be a multi-year project, and we are just one year in.

In this essay, I draw on my recent participation in the All Worked Up Project, my experience teaching critical university studies (CUS) and as a CUS researcher, and the scholarly literature on undergraduate research to consider what students get from and contribute to CUS. What does critical university studies offer to students? What can students bring to critical university studies? And how might such exchanges lead us beyond scholarship, enable us to build solidarity, and empower us to invent a new university, our university, that serves students, scholar-teachers, and its diverse publics rather than the imperatives of neoliberal capital?

Research as Learning

Undergraduate research is the object of a lively, if small, wing of education scholarship. Students have assisted faculty since the beginnings of the research university, but educators' and administrators' interest in undergraduate research as a pedagogical tool really intensified with the publication of the Boyer Commission's Reinventing Undergraduate Education in 1998. The Boyer Report issued an imperative to reform undergraduate education to emphasize research- and inquiry-based learning. Institutions of every type responded by establishing offices of undergraduate research, hiring coordinators, and funding grants. A number of models exist for undergraduate research: independent studies, directed readings courses, research assistantships, senior theses or capstone projects, and collaborations between students and faculty. No matter the model, undergraduate research projects typically serve one or more of three purposes: to foster student learning, to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, or to assist faculty (Beckman and Hensel 43). (They may also serve activist and social justice purposes, which I discuss below.) Educators debate whether undergraduate research should be product- or process-oriented, whether the science model works in the humanities, and whether topic choice should come from students or faculty, but the pedagogical consensus is that research experiences are immensely beneficial for student learning and development.

The scholarly literature on undergraduate research demonstrates that student research promotes cognitive, social, and emotional learning, and it provides a site for the development and practice of writing, communication, and argumentation skills. It sparks interest in advanced education, improves retention of minority and at-risk students, and makes resumes stand out. (1) Student research supports genuine, sustained, one-on-one contact between faculty and students, and it erects teamwork and negotiation challenges with real stakes. It is a form of problem-posing education. When universities and professional organizations provide venues for students to share their research, they can hone presentation and design skills and experience what it means to speak as an expert. When mentors guide students through a thesis or coauthor with them, college writers have a chance to practice the whole academic writing process, not just its rushed end-of-term analogue. They get to read and compose in the invisible but ubiquitous genres of application and review--conference abstracts, panel and workshop proposals, pitches, submission guidelines, readers' reports, grant applications, and business emails. They learn to tackle feedback and persist through rewrites, resubmissions, and rejection. As John Orr relates, his student collaborator was struck by the duration of the revision process: "a part of her learning process was seeing the need for exhaustive revision, something that she--a very skilled undergraduate writer--was not particularly experienced in doing" (4). Student investigators begin to know "the frustrations and exhilaration we all feel as researchers" (Grobman and Kinkead xxii). Undergraduate research experiences move students from being "undergraduate writers" to writers who can speak with authority, clarity, and precision--and who know how much work that takes.

While developing investigative and communication skills, student researchers are exposed to new ways of conceptualizing knowledge, learning, creativity, and innovation as processes. They experience intense, sustained attention to an object of study or problem, getting to see what happens if you let your curiosity play out. As collaborators or principal investigators, they face the messiness of knowledge production, including the menial labor, clerical acumen, and administrative effort it requires. They have to find time in busy schedules to get research and writing done, even if it feels at times like a burdensome hobby, and they have to decide when to privilege their research over other commitments and when to let it slide. Student researchers encounter the uncertainties of inquiry, "learn to handle ambiguity," and find out that "failure is a possible outcome," though not necessarily a negative one (Beckman and Hensel 43; Schantz 29).

Perhaps most importantly, student researchers confront the incompleteness of knowledge. Today's undergraduates grew up in the era of No Child Left Behind (IMCLB), the Common Core, and Race to the Top. They should not be faulted if their concept of knowledge reflects the assessment movement's epistemology of "predictability; quantification and comparison; standardization, transparency, and a reductive notion of democratic publics" or its emphasis on acquiring "discrete skills and pieces of information in place of genuine intellectual engagement" (Emery 259). Research experiences can undo some of this damage because they offer students what Kim Emery calls "the true key to the academic kingdom: the secret that our future is unknown, that research will reveal surprises, that difference offers a safeguard against narrow-mindedness, that incoherence is a condition of possibility, and that knowledge is neither finite nor fixed" (259). When we give students the chance to become producers of knowledge rather than consumers, we counter the neoliberal socialization of IMCLB, college applications, and lecture courses. We give students the chance to redefine themselves as meaning-making agents.

Questioning the University

Research in critical university studies may be a particularly effective site for developing student agency, because undergraduates often know more about their universities than their faculty, at times seeming to occupy an alternate institution, existing unnoticed alongside ours. (Compare for a moment the way your students use the library and what you do there.) They come to critical university studies as experts in their own right, so the task of building students' confidence is already underway, as is their development of questions and curiosity. When I assign research projects in critical university studies courses...

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