Date of Award

Spring 2009

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas Newkirk


This dissertation examines the uses and conceptualizations of photography in college Composition. Composition has long been conflicted over the relation between form and content---and since the 1970s, between aesthetics and politics. Today, this disciplinary tension manifests in how the visual is brought into pedagogy: either it is approached aesthetically, as something to beautify a text, or politically, as a source of cultural critique. The field's uses of photography have been positioned within this aesthetics/politics binary, but to understand the medium as only one or the other is to miss its full practical and theoretical potential.

Theoretically, photography is powerful and poignant because it is both a product of society and a work of art; both ideological artifact and piece of the natural world; both beautiful and deceptive. As an utterly ambiguous object of questionable knowledge, the photograph is an ideal tool for introducing students to the genuine challenges of interpretation. Practically, photographs are easily examined by groups of students, are convenient points of reflection for class discussion, and are pleasing to work into one's written text. This pleasure is key: it makes the act of composing an affective, critical, artistic, and thoroughly rhetorical process.

Each chapter ties these practical and theoretical qualities of the photograph into different areas of concern to writing teachers. Chapter I looks at the ways photography is usually situated by social pedagogies, arguing that personal and aesthetic uses of photography also help students develop critical thinking skills. Chapter II considers the poststructural critique of a "stable self" in autobiography, arguing the photo-essay can help students maintain a strong narrative voice in spite of this de-stabilizing of self. Chapter III considers how photography helps students meld affective and intellectual aspects of subjective experience into research writing. Chapter IV considers the moral challenges posed by looking at disturbing photographs, arguing that asking students to work on such images aesthetically helps them confront the horrific events depicted, but in a way that is survivable. The chapters build in ethical complexity, but aesthetics and ethics are balanced throughout---which, this dissertation argues, is the essential power of photography.