Date of Award

Fall 2003

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas Newkirk


This dissertation examines students' personal essays as rhetorical projects of self-representation. The debate over the role of personal writing in composition studies has created a binary opposition between a modernist transcendent notion of self and a postmodern discursive subject. As a result, the complex issues of self and representation in student work is often dismissed in favor of what is traditionally called "academic discourse." The concept of "narrative identity" provides a way to identify the strategies that student writers use to establish ethos, assert agency, and negotiate codes of belonging within multiple social communities. Chapter 1, "Situating Personal Writing," considers how the key terms of self narrative---self, experience, and voice---have become problematic in light of postmodern theories of the subject. Chapter 2, "Identity in Autobiographical Writing: A Question of Ethos," examines how autobiographical theory, cultural studies, and rhetorical theory offer important insights into the question of the personal. Chapter 3, "'Poets of their own affairs': (Re)figuring Identity and Agency," draws on the work of French cultural critic Michel de Certeau in order to study how writers write out of, and back to, existing models of gendered identity. Chapter 4, "'On Lies, Secrets, and Silence': Reading/Writing the Family," reconsiders the role of family essays as relational narratives that define the self in relation to an "other." Chapter 5, "Writing Home: Identity, Place, and Rhetorics of Belonging," looks at how student writers write about a self in relation to home and community. Chapter 6, "The Role of Self Narrative in Education," places the debate over personal writing within the larger context of education and argues that personal essays can do critical work by providing the necessary space for students to imagine themselves as writers and to compose a relationship between their lives and their education.