Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Williams, Bronwyn T.

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Golding, Alan

Committee Member

Jaffe, Aaron

Committee Member

Schneider, Stephen

Committee Member

Cooper, Marilyn M.


English language--Rhetoric--Study and teaching; Academic writing--Study and teaching; Rhetoric--Study and teaching (Higher)


This dissertation is a critical intervention into the question of student agency. An interdisciplinary project that draws upon philosophy and linguistics, it reviews four major tendencies that have animated composition pedagogy over the last several decades— process theory, social-constructivism, procedural rhetoric, and trans-lingual pedagogies— and identifies some of the key tensions that both motivate and problematize these approaches. First, it examines the debate between Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae, and the interplay between teachers’ authority and student agency. Second, it explores the imbrications between representation and materiality in social constructivism. Third, it uses Alain Badiou’s Being and Event to analyze the tensions between (nominally) formulaic composition strategies and the elusiveness of kairos. Fourth, it investigates non-standard English dialects, Suresh Canagarajah’s concept of “code meshing,” and the competing conceptualizations of language as a static system, and as a dynamic, emergent process of sedimentation. Rather than attempting to resolve these tensions, my dissertation dramatizes them, painting a fuller, clearer picture of the contradictions that every classroom inhabits. In doing so, I do not privilege any single approach over the others. Instead, I call for a particular pedagogical disposition that can productively inform all of them: a resistance to closure, an openness to critical puzzlement, a negative capability that invites the rupture of rigid structures and schemas. With regard to composition studies more broadly, my dissertation dissects the key terms and assumptions of the debates surrounding these pedagogical tendencies, forwarding a more nuanced theoretical platform on which they can transpire. Ultimately, my dissertation aims to inform pedagogical practice and curriculum development more generally, and lead to an enriched understanding of how student agency can vitalize the classroom.