Practitioners' Understanding of Teaching College Composition

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Reading and Language Arts


Peter Mosenthal


Teaching, Composition

Subject Categories

Curriculum and Instruction | Education | Reading and Language


The purpose of this study was to investigate how part-time teachers understood the goals of teaching college composition. Nationally such instructors taught a larger proportion of such classes than full-time faculty. Without understanding their goals one could not understand the actual curriculum of composition. In addition, their perspectives constituted practitioner arguments for certain goals within the national debate.

The theory and subsequent assumptions that inform qualitative research guided my rationale for the focus of this research and the chosen methodology.

Data collection consisted primarily of interviews of fifteen teachers that focused on their goals for students and the factors that contributed to the formation of those goals. In addition, teachers spoke about their personal reasons for teaching writing; classroom practices; and ways of running their classes, responding to papers and addressing grammar issues. These teachers were atypical in their long experience, extensive tradition of reflective practice and rating as strong teachers.

Analysis of goals revealed that teachers most valued that students write better--make more effective writing decisions from a larger repertoire of choices and evaluate writing tasks and contexts better. Equally important were skills to support good writing--assessing one's own writing better and continuing through reflection to learn and develop as a writer. Two other strong goals were students developing as thinkers and as independent writers with their own authority. Furthermore, teachers had a deep confidence in these goals.

Many teachers were uninterested in direct, comprehensive grammar instruction, teaching argument, extensive summative evaluation, political goals, or formulas for writing. Teachers often focused their talk on students gaining insights about writing and on work with students to build the course agenda as the semester unfolded.

Analysis of contributing factors revealed that teachers primarily identified practitioner-level sources, either their own experience as teachers or writers, or accounts of other teachers, experiences. Secondarily they noted connections with mentors, faculty or coursework.

This study has implications for what constitutes teaching expertise and strong pedagogy in the field of composition. It also has implications for administering writing programs, in particular for enacting a curriculum through part-time teachers.


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