Writing on the Margins: The Concept of Literacy in Higher Education

  • David Bartholomae


There are obvious dangers in talking about problems of literacy on college campuses. Perhaps the greatest danger is that we think we are making a precise distinction when we say that some students have it and others don’t. It seems obvious to us that students come with diverse skills as readers and writers and that this diversity can be segmented and arranged —usually, or at least initially, in a binary opposition: marginal or mainstream, remedial or regular, noncredit or credit, English 101 or Basic Writing.1 I don’t question that students bring diverse skills to our classrooms, nor do I question either the pedagogical value of grouping students according to levels of ability or (and this is a more difficult admission) distinctions that place some students on the margins of the university while placing others in the center. It is in the nature of intellectual work to force distinctions between the center and the margins. Most of us would say that our lives as students were marked initially by a struggle to enter into those habits of mind (those ways of reading and writing) that define the center of English Studies, just as many of us would say that the later stages were marked by a desire to push against that center —to debate, redefine the terrain, and establish a niche that somehow seemed to be our own. (In fact, in my ideal curriculum, the most advanced students would be pushed toward the margins and not into the center of the work represented by university study.2) I do, however, think there is reason to examine the assumptions about the nature of literate skills represented by the decisions we make in placement exams or tracking procedures.


Literate Skill Real Lesson Twelfth Grader Experienced Writer Basic Writer 
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Copyright information

© Bedford/St. Martin’s 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Bartholomae
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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