Date of Award

Fall 1997

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Patricia A Sullivan


This dissertation analyzes student texts about bodily violence written for Freshman English and advanced writing courses at the University of New Hampshire between 1994 and 1996. All the volunteers were white women, most aged 18-21. The project addresses four central questions: Why are students writing about these experiences? How are they writing about them? What assumptions inform teachers' responses to such essays? What larger cultural contexts shape how such experiences are represented and understood by students and teachers?

The primary materials are twenty-five student essays; interviews with students, teachers, and campus personnel; and observations of classrooms and staff meetings. Information was gathered and interpreted using qualitative methods--context-sensitive textual analysis, case study, and classroom ethnography. Engaging the theories of Sandra Bartky, Susan Bordo, Erving Goffman, Alison Jaggar, Peter Stearns, and Lynn Worsham, the study situates students' essays within cultural, historical, gendered, and pedagogical contexts, emphasizing how "emotion" is constructed and deployed within power relations.

This dissertation begins with what compositionists assume about students writing about sexual/physical abuse and eating disorders. They fear that students expect a therapeutic relationship. In addition, such violence is believed to produce psychological disorders, leading some compositionists to assume students only write about these experiences in egocentric, non-academic ways. Some compositions also often assume these essays are primarily solicited from expressivist pedagogies.

On the contrary, this study argues students write about these issues across a spectrum of composition pedagogies, adopting multiple genres, arguments, and academic interpretations to structure quite public and often intellectually and rhetorically complex essays. Some students may seek the traditional function of college writing to become part of middle class culture where a unified sense of identity connotes power and authority which have been denied them. Far from seeking a therapeutic relationship with teachers, some students may assume the relative anonymity of the university offers strategies for emotional control and less criticism of emotional intensity. However, these students also implicitly challenge the university's separation of emotion/reason, private/public, normal/deviant. Thus they disrupt power relations and dialectically build social criticism from their "outlaw emotions," challenging composition theories.