Date of Award

Winter 12-22-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Martinez, Aja

Second Advisor

García de Müeller, Genevieve

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Rhetoric | Rhetoric and Composition


This dissertation explores how single mothers in higher education across geographic locations, academic ranks, disciplines, and identities build support systems and draw on rhetorical strategies derived from their embodied knowledge to survive and navigate in academia. Single mother experiences are underrepresented in scholarship about parenting in higher education. This absence is evidenced in policies, systems, and structures that prioritize the needs of heteronormative family units. The lived experiences and material realities of single mothers reveal how their lives outside academia shape and are shaped by their lives within it, including scholarly activity, interactions with colleagues, and relationships with their children. This dissertation argues that higher education needs to make shifts to better support single mothers, thereby benefitting others who are marginalized due to race, class, gender, and ability.

In the introductory chapter, I incorporate autoethnography to explain the exigency for this research, and the context and purpose of this work. Chapter one provides insight about the underrepresentation of single moms in academic scholarship, as well as an overview of the theoretical frames for this dissertation: feminist standpoint theory, an ethics of hope and care, and intersectionality.

Chapter two, "A Literature Review of How (Single) Mothers Move Through and Experience Higher Education" offers a conceptual review of the literature that my work contributes to including work that represents mothers and single mothers in academia across disciplines, and single mothers in Composition and Rhetoric scholarship more specifically. In addition, Chapter two argues for the need to consider intersectionality when developing supportive policies, systems and structures by detailing how the experiences of single mothers and mothers of color are given limited consideration in conversations and research around policies and practices for families.

Chapter three, "Being Other: The Experiences of Single Academic Moms in Higher Education" argues for the need to change higher education institutions through offering greater support systems and structures, and through acknowledging the people within academic institutions who support single moms and do the work to sustain higher education. The chapter focuses on the primary challenges single mothers experience related to money, time, childcare, and the second shift, and then explores what support means to single moms within the context of higher education.

Chapter four, "Moving Mountains: The Composition Practices of Single Moms," argues that single moms' lived experiences and material realities shape their composition practices. Drawing on interview data where single moms talk about how, when, and where they complete composition work (or not), I use testimonios as described by the Latina Feminist and a first-person narrative style, to share single moms' stories. My intention is to honor their stories as told by them, to allow readers to see not only what these women have experienced but also the words they use to describe those experiences.Chapter five, "Do This or Crumble: Looking at the Rhetorical Strategies Single Moms Draw on to Push Against Intersectional Inequities" draws primarily on interview data, but also pulls in survey data to show how single moms respond to various rhetorical situations that emerge as a result of their experiences in higher education. In my analysis, I show how their embodied knowledge and their lives within and outside of higher education are intertwined, informing and shaping the rhetorical resources they draw on as they respond. The chapter draws on counterstory as a method, invoking "autobiographic reflection" as described by Aja Martinez (2020).

Chapter six, "Supporting Single Moms in Academia: Creating Institutional Structures and Systems" synthesizes the conclusions drawn from the data in each chapter to offer specific ways single moms in academia could be better supported. In this chapter, I explore some of the family-friendly policies and support systems already in place, and then suggest new directions for developing support systems and structures at classroom, departmental, disciplinary, and institutional levels to support single mothers, as well as individuals with marginalized subjectivities. Building from the perspectives of the single mothers I surveyed and interviewed, I suggest not only new considerations of policy, but also how to shift the culture forward.

The Epilogue, "Keeping it Together While Falling Apart: Single Parenting During a Global Pandemic" uses survey data from single moms during the pandemic, and also incorporates popular articles and scholarship written about the experiences of single parents in academia during this time. It argues that the ability to improvise a solution to a problem when faced with a lack of resources (mêtis), and the rhetorical resilience (Flynn et al. 2012) single moms implement in the face of the pandemic strengthens the need for higher education to acknowledge their value and contributions, as well as develop institutional support systems and structures that show family-friendliness across parenting identities.


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