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Identity and discoursal elements: Three case studies of first-year writing students

Pamela Weisenberg Hollander, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines, from a poststructural perspective, the writing of three first-year college students enrolled in the researcher's basic writing course, which was taught from a social constructivist perspective. The goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how the course may have impacted the students' writing and their multiple and changing identities. Building on the idea that identity is formed through the use of language, the focus of this study is the discourses, and subject positions made available through these discourses, in students' writing. Interviews were used to identify discourses and subject positions contributing to the autobiographical selves (Ivanic, 1998) that students brought with them to the course and Critical Discourse Analysis was used to discover what discourses and subject positions were drawn on in students' writing. The degree to which the case study students' writing and identities were impacted by the social constructivist curriculum and course readings varied depending on how closely the discourses and subject positions they took up before the course matched those of the course. Specifically, Autoethnographic genre was found to encourage the use of Social Constructivist Discourse, raising the possibility that genre plays an important role in providing students with access to Social Constructivist Discourse and associated subject positions. Nonacademic discourses and subject positions were found in the students writing. Students' identities were found to be sites of competing, shifting discourses. This study implies that poststructuralist ideas are useful for theorizing about writing. The fact that there were multiple, competing discourses found in students' writing has implications for conceptualizing the first-year writing course as “dialectical” (Wall & Coles, 1991). Students may find other discourses more appealing than Social Constructivist Discourse because of their offer of comfort and optimism. The finding that students drew on subject positions and discourses they found in the course readings has implications for seeing readings as “sponsors” (Goldblatt, 1995; Herrington & Curtis, 2000), which give students authority to draw on particular discourses and subject positions.

Subject Area

Language arts

Recommended Citation

Hollander, Pamela Weisenberg, "Identity and discoursal elements: Three case studies of first-year writing students" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3179883.