The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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The Graduate Program in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst offers a variety of courses in the research, theory, and pedagogy of writing.

Students pursuing the terminal or pre-doctoral M.A. in English may take as electives any of the courses described here. Pre-doctoral M.A. students specializing in composition and rhetoric are required to take ten courses in five semesters, including:

  • 1 theory course (we highly recommend Theorizing the Discipline, taken during the first year)
  • 3 courses in literature, exclusive of the theory course above
  • 6 elective courses (usually includes Composition Theory and Rhetorical Theory)

Students pursuing the Ph.D. in English may concentrate entirely in composition and rhetoric. As described more fully on the English Graduate Studies page, all Ph.D. students in the English Department take six courses. For students concentrating in Composition and Rhetoric, three of those six are core courses (described below) introducing them to the key theories and methods of the field. For the other three courses, students may choose from a wide range of elective seminars. Students can find additional resources to help them plan their coursework, exams, and disseration in the English Department's Graduate Student Handbook and in the Comp/Rhet folder.

1. Core courses

All students in the Composition and Rhetoric Ph.D. concentration are required to take the following three courses in theory and research, each of which is offered on a regular two-year rotation. 

2. Electives

Students may choose from a variety of specialized seminars for their electives. Our elective offerings can be divided into three categories representing the main strengths and emphases of our program. For example, we offer with some regularity courses that deal with issues of identity and difference as they relate to writing and writing pedagogy. These include: 

We also offer courses that treat the intersections of writing and technology. Such courses include:  

And we offer courses that concern the embedding of literate practices in social context. These courses include:

Finally, we also offer an introduction to the field for entering terminal or pre-doctoral M.A. students, area K-12 teachers, and graduate students teaching the undergraduate first-year writing course for the first time: Writing and the Teaching of Writing 

3. Other options for electives

For their electives, students may take relevant courses offered in other areas of the English Department and in other departments on campus, such as the Department of Communication Studies and the School of Education's program in Language and Literacy Studies.

4. Practica offered by the Writing Program

Lastly, the Writing Program at UMass offers a variety of practica in the teaching of writing for Teaching Associates in the Writing Program only. Although these do not count officially towards the Ph.D., they can be an important part of graduate students’ professional preparation in the field, showing up on transcripts as a kind of certification of sustained, reflective practice in the teaching of writing. These include: 

Course Descriptions:

Composition Theory

Designed as a survey course, composition theory provides an introduction to various writing theories, focusing almost exclusively on modern theories. While many of these theories emerge from studies of teaching writing, our focus will not be on the practice of teaching. Rather, the course interrogates the act of writing itself--how it takes place, what effect it has on people and their world, what purposes/goals it serves the writer, how it functions within culture, etc. Our primary goals will be to understand both the variety of perspectives on how writing might be theorized as well as the debates and disagreements that exist between and among these theories. Broader questions that will be pursued include the relationship between writing and reality, questions of difference and the writer, the ideologies of writing theories, and the function of teaching writing within the institution and broader culture. By the end of the course, students should have a clear understanding of what is at stake in such theorizing and begin to consider how they position themselves within these debates as teachers and scholars. Readings will be drawn from a wide range of approaches, including expressivism, cognitive theory, social construction, rhetorical theory, Marxism, poststructuralism, feminism, and postcolonialism. Specifically we will read work by scholars such as Bartholomae, Bizzell, Britton, Brodkey, Burke, Elbow, Flynn, Horner, Lu, Malinowitz, Trimbur, and Villanueva. .

Rhetorical Theory

The study of rhetoric is the study of how messages are crafted by individuals and groups to achieve their desired effects in others, whether that study is a matter of art (helping speakers and writers use verbal and other devices to accomplish their ends) or interpretation (helping readers and listeners understand and criticize the intended effects of texts and how those effects are produced). The oldest rhetorical theories are arts of public speech, but rhetoric has also been important as a school subject devoted to eloquence in general. Today, “rhetoric” survives as a somewhat narrow term of political abuse, on the one hand, and as a loose collection of approaches for looking at the suasory function of discourse, on the other. With the twentieth century revival of classical rhetoric, it also remains probably the best developed and most powerful verbal art available to us. The course will be divided into two parts. In the first, we’ll look at the development of ancient rhetorical theory and pedagogy in classical Greece, especially as that can be discerned in the works of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle. In the second, we’ll not only test and evaluate the usefulness of ancient rhetoric in contemporary life but examine modern and postmodern developments in rhetorical theory, from Kenneth Burke to Judith Butler, especially as these have grappled with the new conditions of our lives and new ways of thinking about language, intention, identity, and community. Students will turn in two medium-sized scholarly projects, one for each of the two parts of the course.

Research on Writing

This seminar has two aims: to provide a framework for reading and evaluating empirical research and to help prepare participants to conduct their own research. We will focus primarily on qualitative, context-based methodologies although we will consider the aims, methods and assumptions of a variety of approaches, including experimental, descriptive, and interpretive, and a variety of methodologies including ethnographic, case study research, and teacher-research. We will read about and experiment with such specific methods as interviewing and text analysis through various means, including critical discourse analysis. As we consider research approaches, we will look as well at the theoretical perspectives that inform them, including rhetorical, post-structural, critical linguistic, feminist, and other composition theories. Course assignments will include short experiments with specific research methods, two short reviews of specific studies, a longer review of research on a given question or review of a research methodology, and a pilot research project.

Writing and Difference

Writing and Difference takes a cultural studies approach to investigating the interaction of cultural and academic discourses, looking at the textual practices of marginalized groups and individuals' interactions with discourses of power. Specifically, the seminar will investigate the ways in which difference--defined broadly as race, class, gender, and sexuality--affects writing practices, and how such difference is negotiated within the site of schooling, and more locally, within writing classrooms. We'll begin by looking at research into the diverse literate behaviors in the U.S, examining how cultural contexts embody a variety of epistemologies and ideologies. From this foundation, we'll turn our attention to questions of power and identity politics; that is, the ways in which individuals form subjectivities and identities from the discourses they encounter and express such subjectivities in their writing. The course's primary focus will be on what happens when identities formed in marginalized discourses encounter and possibly conflict with the more "valued" discourses of our society, particularly academic discourse. We will examine these questions of power, textuality, and identity through readings in cultural and composition theory. However, the goal of such theorizing will remain grounded in practice; thus, we will also examine such questions materially through published literacy histories and qualitative research into classroom practice. Finally, the course will turn to questions of pedagogy, looking at various teaching strategies designed to mediate these issues of power in the writing classroom. Assignments will include periodic reading responses, a short autobiographical project into diverse literacy practices, and a major final project. The final project will be geared toward the personal interests of class member.

Gender and Writing

Gender and writing examines how gender affects writing practices and interacts with or potentially alters conceptions of gender and gendered ideologies. In particular, we will examine how looking at writing through the lens of gender challenges traditional notions of authorial voice, genre, and definitions of academic writing as well as the role language plays in constructing, performing, and refashioning gendered identity. In order to examine these effects, the course will take a survey approach organized by definitions of gender (i.e., psychological, sociological, textual, postmodern, cultural, performative, and queer) and how each perspective has impacted composition research and theory on gender and writing. The main focus of the course, however, is on research into gendered writing practices in various contexts rather than feminist theory itself. The theory will serve as a context for studies of gendered writing practices in academic discourse, the pubic sphere, and technological writing spaces.

Writing and Race

Historically, American political and educational policies have alternately restricted, invalidated, and/or affirmed particular racial group’s language practices. Language has simultaneously performed race (late 19th- and early 20th-century judicial writings that performed whiteness/nonwhiteness) and been a vehicle for restricting access (literacy testing as prerequisite for voting and citizenship). More recent manifestations of racialized understandings of language have included U.S. English movements, dismissals of Black English, and characterizations of bilingual education as un-American. To challenge the tangled relationship between writing and race, scholars in rhetoric and composition, education, linguistics, and critical race theory have interrogated the continuing effects of this legacy and explored how writers have upset writing conventions in order to challenged prevailing conceptions of racialized (or race-neutral) writing and reading subjects. This seminar focuses, in particular, on composition pedagogy and racial minority student writers; studies of racial minorities’ writing practices; composition studies’ response to language politics in the 1974 publicationStudents’ Right to Their Own Language; writing and borderlands; and critical re-writings of race.

Marxism in Composition

This course will focus on the various ways Marxist theory has impacted composition theory and research. Issues will range from research specifically on the experiences of students from the working class and working poor in writing classrooms, the effect of global capital on language policy and technological writing spaces, Marxist approaches to writing pedagogy, and historical materialist analyses of composition as a scholarly field. As much of this work presumes a familiarity with various Marxist theories, reading in composition will be supplemented with primary texts as well. Readings in composition will include Bruce Horner, Julie Lindquist, David Seitz, Jennifer Beech, Henry Giroux, Ira Shor, Min-zhan Lu, John Trimbur, Colin Lanskshear, and others.

Writing and Language Ideologies

This course explores writing through the lens of language: How do writers move among their languages? How do "soft boundaries" between languages impact writing in English around the world? How are language boundaries used to control writing and whose interests do they serve? The course will address these questions by considering theoretical work and empirical studies on World Englishes, language politics, and pedagogical responses to language difference and variety. Seminar participants will write a review of research on a current problem in language diversity, a conference paper proposal, and a conference-length paper on a language diversity-related topic. Reading will include Baca, Kachru, Blommaert, Norton, Kalmar, Horner& Trimbur, Prendergast, Canagarajah, Makoni & Pennycook, Phillipson, Pratt, and others.

Writing and Emerging Technologies

In this course, we will examine the most recent research into the connections between computers and writing, looking at both the practical applications and the theory grounding such applications. The course will begin with an historical perspective on technology, examining how technological writing spaces both challenge and reinforce other forms of print culture in order to situate technology within similar historical changes in writing production (e.g. manuscript culture, the printing press, etc.). From this brief historical overview we will move to cultural theories of technology, examining work in media studies, philosophy, and composition focused on understanding the “effect” of the information economy and new forms of writing on our society. As such, the course will draw from work in cultural studies analyzing new technologies and in computers and composition looking at how technology has influenced the teaching of writing. Our focus will be on how writing processes, concepts of authorship, genre, intellectual property, identity politics, civic engagement, and power relations are affected by working with technology. We will consider technologies ranging from discussion technologies (e.g., e-mail, listservs, chat, discussion boards) to hypertext (i.e., interactive fiction, web sites, blogs, electronic publishing) to new multimedia genres merging print with sound and the visual. (No technical expertise required, though!)

Academic Discourses

This seminar considers questions related to writing in academic settings: both professional academic writing and student academic writing. We will look at writing as situated within, shaped by, and shaping specific contexts as it is used by writers in those contexts. Bakhtin and notions of genre will be the starting point. From there we’ll move into other theories of discourse and discourse community and a few studies of professional academic writing and writers. Then we will move to questions of writing, teaching, and learning, both in general education courses and courses in academic majors across the disciplines. Key questions: what genres of writing, ways of thinking, and social roles are students being asked to take on and learn from writing in college? How do we conceptualize writing development?

Literacy Studies

This seminar investigates literacy as a social phenomenon, exploring how meaning is made not only through reading and writing but of reading and writing (Brandt). We will explore foundational and newer scholarship from literacy studies through inquiry, posing questions like
• What is literacy? What are its events, practices, and activities?
• Where is literacy found (in the head, the heart, the hands)?
• How does literacy move among spaces, contexts, and languages?
• How does a diversifying society redefine literacy as effective, creative, illegal, failing?
• Why and for whom does literacy matter? What can or can’t it accomplish?
Scholars in this interdisciplinary field—compositionists, literary scholars, education researchers, linguists, anthropologists, social historians, and economists—have sought to examine these questions and analyze literacy through varied methods (theoretical, historical, quantitative, interview-based, ethnographic) and units of analysis (literacy data from public records, literacy acts and events, literacy practices and contexts). Therefore, the course will attend to methodologies for studying literacy and practices of teaching it, as well as the contemporary social contexts that inform it. Reading will include work from Barton and Hamilton, Besnier, Blommaert, Brandt, Gee, Graff, Heath, Kalmar, Olson, Ong, Scribner and Cole, Street, and others.

Genre, Context, and Social Action

Is genre useful for more than just sorting I-Pod songs? We’ll consider some of the following issues: the explanatory power of theories of genre for understanding texts and their circulation; the role of genre for maintaining and shaping (even changing) social relations, practices, and ideologies; the concept of hybridity and emergent texts types, including internet and web texts. We’ll read some Burke and Bakhtin, additional rhetorical conceptions of genre (e.g., Carolyn Miller, Anis Bawarshi, Amy Devitt), activity theory (Charles Bazerman, David Russell, C. Spinuzzi), theories of hybridity, and critical discourse analysis (e,g., Fairclough).

The Rhetorical Art of Memory

Memory, one of the five canons of rhetoric, was once heralded as the custodian of *all* the parts of rhetoric. In the last century, however, modernists reduced memory to mimetic recall and postmodernists treated authorized memory with suspicion. At the same time, memory has experienced a resurgence in rhetorical theory, minority discourse and literatures, and cultural research. This course examines rhetorical memory by grounding the concept in classical, medieval, and modern western rhetorical traditions (Eric Havelock, Francis Yates, Mary Carruthers; considering memory’s demise and consequent need in composition theory and pedagogy (John Frederick Reynolds, Sharon Crowley, Kathleen Welch); and exploring memorial narrative and historiography as vehicles for critical and creative social praxis (Toni Morrison, Victor Villanueva, Andrea Lunsford).

Rhetorics of the Public Sphere

Since the late 19th Century, the “discipline” of composition and rhetoric in the United States has tended to focus its energies on the discourses of the academy – both through its flagship educational project, freshman composition, and through its perceived mission to prepare students for the demands of school writing in all its forms. But sometime in the latter half of the 20th C., teachers and scholars in the discipline made what some have called a “public turn,” beginning to think more carefully and imaginatively about our students’ lives as language users outside of the classroom – before, during, and after they are “our” students. This “turn” has manifest itself in an increased interest in public writing and political discourse, in the “rhetorics” of everyday life, in connections between composition and service learning, and in the diverse discourse communities that shape our students and to which they will graduate. This course will be a broad-ranging look at rhetorical ecologies outside of the classroom and how our work as teachers might better respond to those worlds. Readings and discussion will concern everything from recent projects in civic education to work on the discourses of new global “communities,” electronic and otherwise. Texts will likely include works of John Dewey, Jürgen Habermas, Patricia Roberts-Miller, Ellen Cushman, Martin Nystrand and John Duffy, etc. There will be a major research project that will involve a substantial historical, textual, or ethnographic investigation of a “public sphere” of some sort.

Writing and the Teaching of Writing

This course focuses on approaches to writing curricula and pedagogy. Implicitly, then, it engages questions about our conception of the nature of writing and our models of learning and teaching. The course will include both reflection on our own experiences as writers, learners, and teachers, and readings on theories of writing and teaching. We will consider, in particular, expressivist, rhetorical, critical, feminist, and cultural theories that inform curriculum design and pedagogy. Readings from such anthologies as Tate-Myers' Writing Teacher's Sourcebook and Lee Odell's Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Offered as an introduction to the field to MA/PhD students and area K-12 teachers. Course assignments will include a writing project, a book review, and an inquiry (research) project. The curriculum will include experience in all aspects of the writing process--drafting, giving and receiving feedback, copy-editing, publishing--and in reflecting on the experience. 

Historiography and Digital Humanities 

This seminar provides an introduction to writing studies scholarship in historiography and the Digital Humanities (DH). Although historical research in Composition and Rhetoric has enjoyed steady growth over the past several decades, and although DH is dominated by work that is overtly historical (Liu 2013), the use of DH methods in histories of composition and rhetoric has thus far been relatively modest. This may be changing, however, and our seminar will try to understand why this might be, identify emerging questions, and ask how scholars working on historical projects within writing studies might productively locate themselves (or not) in relation to DH, its questions, and its methods. Seminar participants will have a chance to practice traditional archival methods as well as explore digital tools and theoretical stances associated with DH scholarship.