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Community-based and service learning college writing initiatives in relation to composition studies and critical theory

Thomas Anthony Deans, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation contextualizes and analyzes community/university partnerships through which college writing is paired with community action. Over the past few years a range of community-based and service-learning initiatives have been launched in departments of English. While some research is available on particular projects, little considers the wider movement. In response, I propose a typology for programs, distinguishing between those that write for, about and with the community; further, I investigate three exemplar programs. Throughout the study I explicate how such practices are situated within (and extend) the discourse of rhetoric and composition. The opening provides an overview of community-based writing initiatives at a range of colleges and universities, and how these programs position themselves in relation to current disciplinary discourses. I then propose a typology which sorts community-based writing pedagogies into three paradigms: those that write for the community, about the community, or with the community. These paradigms are distinguished according to the different aims, literacies and discourses most valued by each. The typology is intended not as a rigid means of categorization, but as a heuristic. John Dewey and Paulo Freire are established as the primary theoretical frames of reference for through a survey of their respective educational philosophies and pedagogical approaches. The places where Dewey's liberal progressivism and Freire's critical pedagogy overlap are emphasized, as are the issues on which they diverge. To put such theoretical discussions in dialogue with lived experience, the dissertation includes three empirical case studies. A junior-year writing-across-the-curriculum course at the University of Massachusetts is studied as an example of "writing for the community." A first-year service-learning composition course at Bentley College offers an example of "writing about the community." And the Community Literacy Center (CLC), a collaboration of Carnegie Mellon and a community center, stands as a representative of "writing with the community." An in-depth and comparative analysis of each results in a sharper understanding of their distinct theoretical, rhetorical and ideological assumptions. To close, this study looks forward, suggesting how community-based and service-learning programs both draw upon and enrich significant disciplinary debates in composition studies.

Subject Area

Language arts|Higher education|Rhetoric|Composition

Recommended Citation

Deans, Thomas Anthony, "Community-based and service learning college writing initiatives in relation to composition studies and critical theory" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841860.