English, Department of


First Advisor

Shari Stenberg

Second Advisor

Stacey Waite

Third Advisor

Rachel Azima

Date of this Version



A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: English, Under the Supervision of Professor Shari Stenberg. Lincoln, Nebraska : August, 2019

Copyright 2019 Caitlin C. Leibman


Choices are a given in rhetorical education, but composition has not given enough attention to the relationship between choices and students’ experiences of rhetorical agency. This dissertation uses expectations as an entry point and choices as a unit of analysis to explore how students navigate and understand their decision-making processes during a single composition project. Drawing from activity theory, this study analyzes classroom data including drafts, author’s notes, and peer response materials as well as student interview data and writing center consultation transcripts. This dynamic approach allows for an exploration of the messiness of the process, creating a portrait of three students and their projects in turn as they complete a composition project that asks students to craft a public text, with an audience beyond the classroom. Each student’s story demonstrates the challenges of crafting a shared understanding of the rhetorical situation, though each also suggests where that composition teachers might readjust their expectations or leverage the opportunities. The results suggest that while instructional materials—such as the syllabus and the assignment sheet—are important to shaping students’ processes, these artifacts are only one part of the ecology of an assignment. Further, helping students become more reflexive about their choices may help address any unexamined beliefs about authority in education and public rhetoric and the potential of leveraging multifaceted and intersecting student identities.

Advisor: Shari Stenberg