Bartholomae changed how Pitt taught composition

David Bartholomae, who transformed the teaching of composition at Pitt, creating a national reputation for the University and spreading this new approach to other institutions, died April 4, 2023.

“He was a real leader in the field of composition studies,” said Professor Gayle Rogers, who currently chairs the English department, which Bartholomae chaired for 14 years. “He helped reinvent the way what we now call first-year writing is taught, from an old top-down model — the professors know the rules and drill them into students’ heads — to thinking of the students as real creators who are full of ideas.”

Bartholomae’s approach worked to “help students create writing that is more experiential and grounded in where they have come from, where they are trying to go and what good teachers can bring out from the imaginative power of students,” Rogers said. “That approach was just a massive, seismic re-orientation of how composition is taught,” aided by the widely used anthology, “Ways of Reading,” co-edited by Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, School of Education faculty member.

For many years, Bartholomae also co-edited an influential book series from the University of Pittsburgh Press with Jean Ferguson Carr, emeritus faculty member in English. “This was the pre-eminent series in composition studies for the field,” Rogers recalled.

“He was deeply passionate about the instruction of first-year writing and he wanted Pitt to be known for that,” he added. “Most universities taught it as something you just rubber stamp and move on until you get to the real experiences of college. His idea was: This is where college begins. He dedicated his scholarship to thinking about that.”

Perhaps his most cited works, Rogers said, were the essay “Inventing the University” and the book “Writing on the Margins.” Bartholomae’s last book, “Like What We Imagine: Writing and the University,” was published in 2021 by the Pitt Press.

Among his many awards, Rogers added, Bartholomae was perhaps most proud of being named 2014 Pennsylvania Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation. His other awards include a 1995 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

“I knew him by reputation before I came to Pitt,” said colleague Annette Vee, who joined the English faculty in 2010 and became director of composition in 2018 upon Bartholomae’s retirement. “It was one of the things I appreciated about Pitt when I came to Pitt — even Dave Bartholomae taught first-year writing. His legacy here is still quite present — and across the field — to take student writers very seriously, to treat them as intellectuals grappling with problems that we in the academy grapple with.”

Vee had observed Bartholomae teach and admired “the way that Dave had students think about language, the way language works … not just language of capital A Authors but the language of everyday people.” There was a deep respect for this kind of writing that everybody could do, not just literary authors, she explained

“In his last year of teaching, he had asked to be assigned to our Workshop in Composition course for student writers who need extra help” — not usually an assignment requested by, or given to, someone at the top of his field.

“Composition is often looked down upon in English departments,” she said. “At a lot of universities, composition is not the most prestigious study. But that’s not the case at Pitt. I would attribute quite a lot of it to Dave. He’s had a strong influence on the way we teach but also on our professional identity here in composition.”

David Bartholomae, born April 20, 1947 in Akron, Ohio, received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University and earned his Ph.D. from Rutgers in 1975. He joined the Pitt English department that year, rising to the rank of professor. His research focus on composition, literacy and pedagogy, as well as rhetoric, American literature and American studies, resulted in a large number of book chapters and articles. His other books include “Facts, Artifacts, Counterfacts: Reading and Writing in Theory and Practice” (1986) and “Reading the Lives of Others: History and Ethnography” (1994), both with Anthony Petrosky.

He also wrote, with graduate students, an online, illustrated history of Pitt’s English Department.

On the occasion of teaching his last class, Bartholomae wrote the following to colleagues:

“I’ve taught intro writing courses just about every semester since 1973.  I’ve learned to read and to value student writing for what it is and what it does, and for what it can and can’t do, particularly over time. … I was teaching writing as a way for writers to generously and productively locate themselves in worlds they don’t and can’t command, worlds both physical and discursive—an appropriate lesson, I believe, for the work of academy and for life as an adult. … preparing students to write these essays has been the preoccupation and delight of a long career.”

A memorial is being planned for May at Pitt.

He is survived by his wife, Joyce; children Jesse Bartholomae, Daniel Bartholomae and Catherine Liese, and siblings Rebecca, Philip and Suzanne Bartholomae.

Memorial gifts are suggested to the David Bartholomae Fund, University of Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 640093, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-0093 or, which aids Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences undergraduates.

Marty Levine