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College students' construction of writer identity: Furthering understanding through discourse analysis and poststructural theory

Linda A Fernsten, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The purpose of this study was to investigate issues of writer identity in a college classroom, especially as they relate to the social and cultural influences of society. Using a poststructural lens to establish the theoretical viewpoint, this study examined the role of discourse in both framing student constructions of their identities and shaping the ideological stances from which they drew those understandings. The methodology used included an ethnographic study of a junior year writing class required of education majors at a large university. Examination and analysis of student writing/talk was used along with observation of student behaviors. Discourse analysis was also employed as a means of more closely examining the work of four of these students who were chosen because they constructed their identities in a more negative fashion. The research was conducted with twenty-one students with findings indicating they did not generally recognize aspects of race, ethnicity, second-language, disability or other sociocultural conditions as influential factors on their writer identity constructions. Students demonstrated a clear preference for expressivist writing, constructing more positive identities around it. Many students expressed concerns about aspects of traditional formal writing and signaled stunted growth and uninitiated-type identities when discussing these concerns. A third of the students expressed concerns about process writing, primarily fearing judgment and critique of their peers. Discourse analysis provided evidence that the composition discourses of expressivism, traditional formal academic discourse, and process permeated student language and were instrumental in constructing writer identity. This methodology also provided evidence that the basic composition metaphors of “stunted growth” and initiation were implicated in student writer identities, especially in relationship to traditional formal academic discourse. Writer identity in almost all cases was found to be multiple and, for most students, conflicting across situation and genre. The implications of this study suggest a need for explicit discussion of the political aspects of written language use in the academy. A case is also made for integrating more hybrid forms of discourse into writing classes as students taking up expressivist discourse, for the most part, constructed more positive writer identities.

Subject Area

Rhetoric|Composition|Language arts|Educational psychology

Recommended Citation

Fernsten, Linda A, "College students' construction of writer identity: Furthering understanding through discourse analysis and poststructural theory" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056223.