Activists, Immigrants, Citizens: Grounding Rhetorical Conceptions of Literacy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Rebecca Moore Howard


Composition, Rhetoric, Literacy, Chicana, Writing assessment, Citizenship test

Subject Categories

Rhetoric and Composition


"Activists, Immigrants, Citizens: Grounding Rhetorical Conceptions of Literacy" creates a genealogy of a rhetorical conception of literacy that inserts rhetoric and composition's research into the wider field of (new) literacy studies. The dissertation grounds rhetorical conceptions of literacy in examinations of literacy artifacts from two research sites--contemporary activism in Juarez, Mexico and institutional measurements of immigrant literacy in early 20th century New York state literacy tests. After historicizing grounded theory, I use grounded theory strategies to examine each research site as localities and their transcontextual relationships. I argue that a rhetorical conception of literacy, as a conceptual approach with corresponding research methodological traditions, aids rhetoric and composition in further expanding the definitions, researching, teaching, and assessing of writing.

Triangulating discourses about activist writing to decipher what kinds of literacy practices and conceptions of literacy circulate within Juarez activism and their compositions, I argue that Juarez activist materials reveal an invention and reliance upon three kinds of literacies in pursuit of rhetoric: symbolic, performative, and coadjuvancia literacies. These literacies are developed and deployed as activists compose arguments in response to ongoing femicides in the region and therefore embody rhetorical conceptions of literacy. I emphasize that Juarese activist literacies become most visible and valuable when considered in relationship to the emerging tradition of rhetorical conceptions of literacy. I likewise examine New York state literacy tests, positioning the tests between immigration policies and attitudes of the early 20th century to analyze three conceptions of literacy that guide the design and assessment of the tests: institutional Literacy, literacy, and literacies. The literacy tests value institutional Literacy most, embodying an arhetorical conception of literacy that likewise influences assessment to be imagined as arhetorical. I argue that the tests assign value to the notion that one is Literate when one masters a closed system of language and uses that language in predictable, sanctioned ways.

I argue that approaching literacy research through the lens of rhetorical conceptions of literacy and encouraging transcontextual research about literacy is useful in recognizing literacies as constant mediation and negotiation used in the pursuit of rhetoric.