Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Rosamund Stooke


How students learn to write in the disciplines is a question of ongoing concern in writing studies, with practical implications for academia. This case study used ethnographic methods to explore undergraduate writing in two upper year anthropology courses at a Canadian university over one term (four months). Student and professor interviews, classroom field notes, surveys, and students’ final papers were analysed using a framework drawn from activity theory and informed by genre theory. Four themes emerged from the data: anthropology as school; the familiar vs. unfamiliar; reading; and hidden rhetoric. Findings suggest students approach disciplinary work primarily as students rather than emerging professionals, and this role is adopted because it is familiar and few opportunities are provided to practice other professional activities. Extensive reading was seen as important by students and professors. Students demonstrated high skill levels in finding and using sources, but expressed frustration and resistance to the use of discipline-specific jargon, especially that of theoretical/sociocultural anthropology. While professors linked extensive reading with writing development, students did not make this connection. The rhetorical nature of literacy tasks was largely overlooked or hidden, and explicit instruction on disciplinary writing was infrequently provided to students, who felt they were expected to already know how to write research papers. Analysis of student papers showed a variety of rhetorical moves in their introductions, though familiar academic moves such as including a thesis statement were seen frequently while more sophisticated moves such as establishing ethos were little seen. Papers that used more sources and were longer received higher grades. Overall, students demonstrated a range of levels of writing development and disciplinary enculturation. The activity theory framework used in this project was useful in providing a model to structure analysis. Its explanatory power, however, is limited unless an alternate conceptualization of activity (such as Ilyenkov’s) is used that integrates the notion of genre as social action. In conclusion, adequate study of activities such as disciplinary writing requires theoretical and methodological complexity and is best conducted in research collaborations that include expertise in a variety of methods and from a variety of approaches.