Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Wolfe, Joanna Lynn

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Lu, Min-Zhan

Committee Member

Horner, Bruce

Committee Member

Ryan, Susan

Committee Member

Cooper, Marilyn M.


English language--Rhetoric--Study and teaching; Academic writing--Study and teaching


This dissertation engages in a close reading of the research in composition on transfer, a concept that refers to how the practices learned in one situation influence what a person can do in a future situation. In the studies that have appeared over the last two decades, the results have indicated that not much transfers between writing courses and future contexts, whether they be disciplinary courses or professional workplaces. Yet, despite the increasing prominence of transfer research, little time has been spent discussing the uses and limitations of the concept. To better understand its growing popularity among researchers, I examine its roots in genre theory, its use by empirical researchers, and its function in the debate over first-year composition. Part of the reason we have trouble isolating instances of “transfer” is because of the way the concept frames our understanding of writing development. It treats practices almost like commodities, mental tools that are acquired in the classroom and then eventually carried by learners into new situations. Following the work of social theorists like Stephen Turner, Jean Lave, and Pierre Bourdieu, I argue for a model of practice that views it as a temporal “coupling” between a person’s habitual dispositions and their social environment. The main contribution this perspective makes to transfer theory is the emphasis it places on time. Because the world is always in flux, students must continually respond to new challenges, whether they are as simple as adjusting to a difficult professor’s expectations or as complex as writing in an unfamiliar genre. If we look at writing development from this perspective, transfer is ubiquitous, for learners must necessarily draw on their previous experiences to meet the demands of a changing world. The first chapter establishes the dissertation’s theoretical framework, focusing especially on Bourdieu’s discussion of practice and criticisms made of his work. The second chapter looks critically at the metaphors employed to understand writing practices in genre theory and transfer studies. The metaphors point to some unspoken assumptions in our discipline, mainly by demonstrating the ways researchers portray practices almost like commodities. The third chapter examines the methodological approaches used to examine transfer and shows how researchers often don’t fully take into account the tacit dimension of practice. The fourth chapter articulates an alternative model of writing practices, one that brings together the work of practice theory and actor-oriented transfer research. In the final chapter, I suggest some directions for future research, arguing we especially need more information about how students deal with unexpected situations.