Critics, classrooms, and commonplaces: literary studies as a disciplinary discourse community
Wilder, Laura Ann
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This dissertation aims to complicate current understanding of disciplinary discourse communities though an investigation of the disciplinary values of literary studies, a discipline that for a variety of reasons has been under-examined in “writing in the disciplines” research. The first half of the manuscript examines the assumptions imbedded in the professional rhetoric of literary studies. Adapting methodologies used in analyses of professional discourse by Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor, I analyze the stasis issues and special topoi appearing in the first volume of PMLA 1884-5 and in a more recent sample of the discipline’s discourse, journal articles published between 1999 and 2001. These analyses demonstrate the rhetorically conservative and progressive functions special topoi serve in professional discourse, allowing literary scholars to argue for new directions for the profession by appealing to shared values and practices. They also suggest that, despite a currently pervasive ethos of anti- disciplinarity, the discipline is refashioning itself as a knowledge-building discourse community. The second half investigates the previously unexamined role of these assumptions in a site that is simultaneously central to this discipline's work and low in its hierarchical structure: the frequently required undergraduate introductory literature course. I triangulate ethnographic observations of a large undergraduate literature class’s meetings, textual analyses of a sample of students’ essays, and questionnaires to explore the extent to which the special topoi of professional-level discourse are present in a class intended for non-majors. I also present the results of an interventional quasi- experiment that seeks to distinguish the weight given to the use of discipline-specific rhetorical strategies and more general stylistic strategies in evaluating undergraduate writing. Although the professor whose course was studied stated his course objective was to teach “general-purpose” argumentation, analysis of student papers and grades indicates the use of discipline-specific special topoi was rewarded, underscoring the situated nature of “good” writing. The results of these studies suggest that the literature course intended for non-majors may be a borderland of discourse communities and a site of value formation and conflict. Thus the boundaries of disciplinary discourse communities may be more complex and permeable than current descriptions of them relate.