Advice to Rhetoric and Composition Doctoral Students
This material is intended to supplement the English Department advice for the Ph.D. program offered in the department's Ph.D. Student Handbook. This supplemental material specifies guiding principles regarding supervisory committees, exams, and dissertations. Doctoral students pursuing a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in Rhetoric and Composition are urged to familiarize themselves with this material and to use it as a prompt for discussions with their committee members.

I. Committee

II. Exams

III. Dissertation

I. COMMITTEE

We recommend you start the Ph.D. process by choosing a chair or co-chairs. Typically, faculty members who know your work and interests through courses, Composition Colloquium, or other departmental activities or committees are in the best position to serve as chair or co-chairs. You might also read some of the faculty’s writing to get a sense of their research interests in relation to your own. Throughout your doctoral program, your chair is the person with whom you will work most closely; be sure you are comfortable with the person or persons you choose.  Please feel encouraged to ask any of us for advice about who would be a good chair for you. You should, however, take the initiative to talk directly to the faculty member you want as chair. (The Graduate Chair does not appoint chairs.)

Your chair will advise you in forming your supervisory committee, selecting outside members for your committee, and working through the initial filing of the Program of Study. In general, we recommend that the members of your supervisory committee be selected with your future program in mind. Your chair can aid you in selecting the appropriate faculty. Please be assured that we all understand the initial supervisory committee may change after you have completed the comprehensive exams.

II. EXAMS

Creating Field and Focus Lists

Since Rhetoric and Composition is increasingly vast and hence has a shifting set of core works (different, say, from the more stable core of a historical period in American letters), doctoral students are responsible for crafting their own vision of the field, as represented by the lists they compile and frame for readers.  There is no standardized list housed in the Graduate Office.  You will create both a “Field” and a “Focus” list.  The Field list is the larger intellectual terrain you wish to cover: the area, in fairly broad strokes, in which you wish to locate your work in Rhetoric and Composition.  Examples might include Composition and Critical Pedagogy, Writing Centers, Theories of Writing and Writing Assessment, or Rhetoric of Women Writers.  The Focus list should carve out a smaller swath of that conceptual terrain—the sub-area of the field to which you see yourself contributing.  Examples might include Ecocomposition, Community Literacy, or Identity/Subjectivity and Writing.

As you design your lists, you should consult often with your chair.  Your chair can show you examples of successful Field and Focus lists (as can many of your graduate student colleagues).  The other members of your committee may be consulted as well as you prepare your lists and your written description of and rationale for the lists for the Graduate Committee.  In order to submit your lists, you will need the formal approval of your chair and your two readers. 

We advise that you start compiling your lists early.  Consider how texts you’re reading or seeing cited “speak to” each other.  You can include texts you’ve read for graduate courses or on your own as well as those you have reason to believe will be helpful in addressing the topics, issues, and questions that concern you.        

The lists you submit to the Graduate Committee will include three kinds of information: 1) a narrative rationale that explains how and why you’ve constructed the lists as you have, 2) a set of guiding questions that frame each list (and sometimes groups of texts within each list), and 3) the texts themselves, with full bibliographic information. 

Designing an Exam Portfolio
The Rhetoric and Composition faculty usually recommends the Combined Portfolio Option for the Comprehensive examination.  This portfolio should represent your work as a professional—that is, as both a scholar and a teacher. The purpose of the portfolio is to articulate, inquire into, and make a contribution to an area of professional interest.  We encourage you to use the exam process as an opportunity to shape your research and teaching interests and to begin positioning yourself for the job market.  Whenever possible, you should explore connections between your scholarship and teaching.       

As you design your portfolio, you should consult often with your chair.  Other members of your committee may be consulted as well; work with your chair to arrange a workable advice process.  Generally, you’ll want to circulate draft materials for the portfolio to members with an eye toward the specific expert advice they are able to offer.  Your chair is likely to be the only faculty member who will see the entire portfolio before formal submission.  We also encourage you to take advantage of the informal support opportunities offered in the program, including Composition Colloquium, reading groups, and the like.  Many graduate students have informal writing groups as well or choose to bring drafts to the Writing Center as well. 

The portfolio should not exceed 60 pages (excluding optional appended material). Key elements include:

  1. a cover letter in which you articulate the scope, main issues and ideas, and organizing principles of your work as represented in the portfolio: this letter should guide the reader through the contents of the portfolio, demonstrating how you are conceptualizing the field and your focus, your research and teaching within the field, and why your work is a contribution to the field’s growing knowledge;
  2. either a single (25-30 page) scholarly essay or two shorter (15-20 page) scholarly essays: this work should feature your exam research; identify a significant question, debate, or problem in the field; make a contribution to that conversation; and be suitable for submission to appropriate journals in the field and of near-publication quality
  3. sample course materials or equivalent Writing Center materials that showcase the theory and practice of your teaching/consulting: typically, we recommend developing syllabi for three courses you have taught or are interested in teaching: a first-year composition course, an advanced undergraduate course in the area of your Field list, and a graduate seminar related to your emerging research program as captured through your Focus list (We recognize, though, that not all doctoral students intend to teach at an institution with a graduate program; in this case, the third syllabus might focus on a specific undergraduate student population, technology, or related subject matter.)  
  4. one or two examples of professional writing: we recommend including conference papers, grants, proposals, that emerge from your work in the areas defined by the Field/Focus lists. (Further examples may be appended if they make a significant contribution to the portfolio.)

Typically, in our evaluation of portfolios, we accord roughly equal weight to the scholarly and teaching materials.  Your scholarly work should demonstrate your knowledge of the literature in the field relevant to your topic, your ability to fashion a scholarly argument and support it with appropriate research, and the significance of your contribution to a scholarly conversation.  Your teaching/consulting materials should demonstrate your ability to conceive of theoretically-informed, instructionally sound, and student-sensitive instruction.    

When the portfolio is complete, your two readers will evaluate it and indicate a) pass, b) revise and resubmit, or c) fail.  Once you pass your exam, you may schedule your capstone oral. 

The Capstone Oral
The capstone oral is a one-hour conversation with your supervisory committee and any faculty readers for your comprehensive exam portfolio who are not on the supervisory committee. Since faculty will not hold the capstone oral until your comprehensive portfolios have been passed by your readers, we don’t think of the capstone oral as a test over that material or a time where you justify the work we’ve already approved. Instead, we see the capstone oral as a formal, focused conversation about the field and focus you’ve constructed and how you see your scholarship and teaching fitting into those larger conversations.  Note that you are responsible for the texts on your reading lists as a whole, whether or not they appear in the written work in your portfolio.  In general, most orals proceed this way: 

  1. At the beginning of the oral, your chair will ask you to make an opening statement that articulates your vision of the field and your work within it and names the main issues you want to discuss with us. We recommend that you talk with your chair in advance about what to include in the opening statement. This is your chance to shape the discussion.
  2. After your statement, we will engage you in robust intellectual discussion about your articulation of the field and your emerging work within it. You might anticipate questions for clarifications, for explaining the importance of your work in relation to the corners of the profession that may most misunderstand it, and for applying your key ideas to situations in teaching, research, and service in the profession. For us, the goal of this discussion is to clarify with you how your emerging professional profile fits into and extends the current state of the wider field.
  3. While we expect the dissertation process to be separate from the comprehensive portfolio and capstone oral, we do anticipate that you will be able to talk at your oral about your plans for a dissertation project and the prospectus you will develop for it.
  4. At the end of the hour, the faculty may ask for a few moments of private conversation to determine if any faculty member has objections to approving the formal Capstone Oral Examination Report. The chair of your committee will complete the necessary form on behalf of the examining committee and turn it in to the English Graduate Office within five days of the capstone oral. Since the Rhetoric and Composition faculty expects that oral will not occur until the Field/Focus portfolio has been passed by readers, our policy is not to fail students at this examination. If the capstone does not proceed as documented here, it will be dealt with following the procedures for conditional and dissenting votes explained on page 8 of the Ph.D. handbook.

III. DISSERTATION

You should think of your dissertation as not only a text, but a process that includes several components: a prospectus and a prospectus meeting with your committee, the text itself and the various interactions with your chair and your committee members while the text is taking shape, and an oral.  This is important to remember because the intellectual work of your dissertation is not confined only to the pages you produce; for example, you might be asked to synthesize elements of your dissertation during an oral in ways you had not thought to do or were not able to do in your text. 

That said, a Rhetoric and Composition dissertation is an inquiry and/or argument that makes a significant contribution to the field by engaging the issue(s) under exploration.  While the dissertation will assume a form appropriate to its intellectual aims, all dissertations should do the following: locate the inquiry/argument in relation to an ongoing conversation in the field and, when appropriate, to related fields; demonstrate an understanding of the issues and contexts that shape the topic under exploration; use research methodologies appropriate to the inquiry; and synthesize its components into a coherent intellectual project.

Each successful dissertation project will accomplish these key tasks, but there is a wide range of ways and means for doing so.  In the past ten years, dissertation writers in our program have accomplished these goals in these ways, among others:

  • through case studies of students, classes, or community contexts, framed by introductory and concluding chapters that use the case studies to illuminate and contribute to specific debates in the field;
  • through carefully-designed qualitative, quantitative, or analytical research studies examining specific literacy or rhetorical practices in their contexts of use;
  • through mixed-genre projects that combine creative writing with analytical and pedagogical essays to address a coherent set of issues;
  • through linked essays exploring a specific set of issues in a series of key texts in our field or  developing and applying theoretical concepts (often created by combining ideas in Rhetoric and Composition with interdisciplinary theories from related fields) which speak to particular controversies in Rhetoric and Composition.

In our program, there is no single formal model for what a dissertation must be.  Instead, one of your primary tasks in developing a dissertation will be to design a text whose progression (for you as writer and us as readers) creates an inquiry and /or argument that accomplishes the tasks/goals listed above.

The Dissertation Prospectus
The Composition/Rhetoric faculty requires formal approval of the dissertation prospectus sometime after the capstone oral (usually the following semester, but sometimes later in the same semester, if the exam occurs early in the term).  The prospectus is a speculative document that lays out a compelling, clear, coherent, and manageable dissertation project.  Our expectation is that actually writing your dissertation will change its shape, so we do not hold you to your prospectus in strict terms.  But we do expect the prospectus to give us a good understanding of how you intend to approach your project. 

As you draft your prospectus, you should confer frequently with your chair.  Other member of your committee may be consulted as well.  You and your chair may wish to consider possible changes to your committee at this point, as well (including possibly changing your chair).  Again, we recommend you take advantage of informal opportunities to share your writing and to consider visiting the Writing Center.  

A dissertation prospectus should be no longer than ten pages (including bibliography), and should include:

  1. a statement of the problem the dissertation will address and its significance to the field;
  2. a statement of how you will undertake the research and writing of the dissertation, addressing your methodology and writing practices;
  3. a brief synopsis/review of the most relevant scholarship;
  4. an outline of the progression of the dissertation, either through chapter-by-chapter contents or through description of the research stages for the project;
  5. a bibliography of the most relevant studies;
  6. a proposed timeline for completion of the dissertation.

Once you, your chair, and any consulting committee members determine that the prospectus is complete, you will schedule a formal prospectus meeting of the supervisory committee.  You will provide the final prospectus to the committee in advance of this meeting.

The purpose of the prospectus meeting is to have focused discussion of your proposed project, how you will handle the intellectual work of the project, and the response/advice process (who will respond to what when?).  The meeting will last approximately one hour and will end either with your committee’s approval of the prospectus or a request to rewrite it.      

Dissertation Writing
Dissertations take various forms and writers complete them in various ways. The Rhetoric and Composition faculty are mindful that writing a dissertation involves the creation and management of a new and evolving writing process for most writers, and we are committed to providing writers with the kind of response they need to do their best work. At the same time, we come to each dissertation project—as we do to any scholarly project—with somewhat varying perspectives, interests, and commitments.  Though this may at times pose a challenge to dissertation writers, we view the successful negotiation of reader expectations to be a hallmark of successful scholarly writing. 

Your chair is your first reader for the dissertation.  Typically, your chair will read and respond to drafts of chapters before the other committee members do.  In any case, each dissertation writer, in consultation with her/his chairs, will arrange a schedule with members of the committee outlining when chapters will be submitted and when response will be returned to the student.  (Typically, at least a loose agreement along these lines is reached during the prospectus meeting.)  Please be sure that you provide ample time for your committee members to read and respond to your dissertation, especially if they have not been reading chapters along the way.  As a general rule, you should aim to provide readers a month to review and respond to a completed draft of your dissertation.  It is not uncommon for writers to meet occasionally with members of the committee as the dissertation is taking shape, but once again, we recommend writers take advantage of the informal opportunities our program provides to support writing.  Many dissertation writers also benefit from visiting the Writing Center. 

Dissertation Oral
The final formal moment with your committee is the dissertation oral, or what is traditionally called the “defense.”  We tend to prefer the former term because, as with the exam, the dissertation is considered “passed” by the time we meet together for this final conversation.

Indeed, the dissertation oral works much like the exam oral: it begins with a brief statement by the candidate, followed by rigorous discussion, and ending with a brief faculty conference.  The purpose of the oral is to “take stock” of what you’ve accomplished in the dissertation and possibly your graduate program in general and to look forward to the next stages of your career.  Often, the faculty will provide advice about publishing prospects for the dissertation or parts of it.  But the most important function of the dissertation oral is to consider how your dissertation positions you for future professional work as a scholar and a teacher.