A rhetoric of crisis: A historical/rhetorical analysis of the emergence of the WPA and its continued identity formation

Date of Completion

January 2003


Education, Administration|Language, Rhetoric and Composition




The dissertation traces a historical and rhetorical trajectory that led to the formation of the Council of Writing Program Administrators (the WPA) in 1976 and analyzes how writing program administrators (wpas), writing, and student writing practice is rhetorically positioned in the language of the journal WPA and other public record documents of writing program administration. The dissertation begins with a brief history of Composition's beginnings at Harvard. Focusing on the public rhetoric of the late-1800s which precipitated and sustained a national literacy crisis, the dissertation starts to explore the notion of crisis and crisis' link to student writing and Composition's identity. This sets the stage for what happens 100 years later in another moment of crisis important in the evolution of Composition and the emergence of the WPA, “Why Johnny Can't Write.” The dissertation then discusses the mid-1970s national literacy crisis as presented in the popular press and offers an extended close reading of the centerpiece of the literature of crisis, Newsweek's “Why Johnny Can't Write.” Uncovering assumptions about students and student writing embedded in Newsweek's article, the dissertation explores some of the academy's failed rejoinders to the crisis of Johnny's writing and the implications for the wpa in the very notion of crisis. Ultimately, how the WPA and WPA deal with crisis is at issue in the WPA's continued identity formation: in creating a sense of who students are, crisis creates a sense of who wpas are, and this sense is made manifest in the literature of writing program administration through the metaphors wpas use for the work of writing program administration and the position of the wpa. These metaphors are key figures in the public record of the WPA; thus, the dissertation discusses how metaphor works and analyzes the function of wpa metaphors. By investigating WPA's historical formation through an examination of 1870s and 1970s writing crisis rhetoric and by reading writing program administration through an analysis of its literature, the dissertation opens a theoretical discussion of the function of crisis and the nature of writing and writing program administration. Appendices index WPA articles alphabetically and by subject. ^