4.0 PhD in Rhetoric & Writing: Program Overview

Program Overview
The PhD in Rhetoric & Writing prepares students to study rhetoric and writing as situated, historical practices and to research, develop, and administer a variety of academic, workplace, civic, government, nonprofit, publishing, and digital writing projects. Designed for completion in four or five years, the degree promotes the critical skills necessary for students to be productive scholars and researchers in rhetoric and writing, and prepares students for faculty and administrative positions in college writing programs.

The PhD in Rhetoric & Writing offers a strong common core of courses to build disciplinary knowledge and understanding across the concentrations:

  • Critical Studies in Literacy & Pedagogy
  • Cultural Rhetorics
  • Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing
  • various self-designed concentrations

R&W PhD Course Requirements
The PhD consists of a minimum of 27 credits of graduate course work beyond the MA degree, plus a minimum of 24 credits of WRA 999 (no more than 36 credits of 999 will be accepted), dissertation research. Students who enter the PhD program already having taken some of the required core courses as part of their MA program may petition the director to waive their requirement in the doctoral program. No more than 6 credits of 400-level course work will count toward the degree. Note: Doctoral students who have passed their comprehensive exams only need to register for one credit to be considered full-time students.

Core Requirements
All of the following core courses (15 cr.):

  • WRA 805 Rhetoric Theory and History (3) (FS)**
  • WRA 870 Research Methodologies in Rhetoric & Writing (3) (FS)
  • WRA 878 Composition Studies: Issues, Theory, and Research (3) (SS)***
  • WRA 882 Contemporary Theories of Rhetoric (3) (SS of even years)**
  • WRA 885 Research Colloquium (3) (FS)

Concentration Requirements

The purpose of the concentration requirement is for PhD students to develop a specialized area of study complementary to their rhetoric/writing degree. A concentration consists of at least nine credits of course work (typically, three courses) in a specialized area at the graduate level. Every PhD student is required to develop one concentration; however, our experience has shown us that most students do work that crosses and/or combines “official” concentrations. We encourage that creativity and embrace the innovations to our discipline that come from it.

The following concentrations are currently available to PhD students:

  • Critical Studies in Literacy & Pedagogy
  • Cultural Rhetorics
  • Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing
  • Self-designed concentration (with guidance committee and graduate committee approval)

Critical Studies in Literacy & Pedagogy
The Critical Studies in Literacy & Pedagogy (CSLP) concentration puts coursework in language and literacy, teaching and learning with technology, and research methodology at its center. Each student in CSLP creates a curricular experience that builds from the Rhetoric & Writing core in its requirements, and allows students to carefully choose elective courses relevant to her/his professional goals.

Exceptions to the Rhetoric & Writing core
With the permission of the graduate program director and major advisor, CSLP students may make the following substitutions:

  • TE 835 (Theory and Research on the Teaching of Writing) for WRA 878 (Composition Studies)

Required for the concentration (9 cr.)

1. AL 881 Teaching with Technology* (3) (FS, SS, US)

2. One course in language, literacy, and culture (3 cr.):

  • WRA 877 Community Literacies (3) (SS of even years)
  • WRA 992 Seminar in Language, Literacy, and Pedagogy (3) (FS, SS)

3. One additional course in research methodology (3 cr.):

  • 931 Qualitative Methods in Educational Research (3) (FS, SS, US)
  • 932 Quantitative Methods in Educational Research I (3) (SS) CEP
  • 955 Research Design and Methods for Learning, Technology, and Culture (3) (FS)
  • CEP 930 Educational Inquiry (3) (FS, SS)
  • WRA 872 Methods of Research in Language Learning and Literacy (3) (SS)
  • ANP 833 Ethnographic Analysis (3) (SS of odd years)

* CEP 953 Teachers and Technology, CEP 952 Technology for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, or CEP 916 Technology and K-12 Education may be substituted with the approval of the director and the student’s guidance committee.

Elective for the concentration (3-6 credits)
One or two courses in Reading, Linguistics, Literacy Development, Sociocultural Diversity, Educational Technology, Educational History or Policy, or Teacher Learning (AL, CEP, EAP, TE, ENG, LIN, LLT, or ANP), as approved by the director and the student’s guidance committee. For a current listing of possible courses, contact the CSLP advisor.

Cultural Rhetorics
Those working in the field of Cultural Rhetorics understand rhetoric as rooted in cultural practices and cultures as persistently rhetorical. The Cultural Rhetorics concentration is distinctive both in its emphasis on located practices and in its methodological flexibility. It asks students to gain an understanding of at least two kinds of knowledge-making practices (theory, methodology, history, etc.) – those that are dominant in the discipline of rhetoric & writing and that are rooted in specific cultural communities. These specific cultural foci arise from the student’s interest and from consultation and discussion with their guidance committee.

While this concentration includes Rhetoric & Writing seminars in areas such as American Indian rhetorics, queer rhetorics, African American rhetorics, Chicano/Latina rhetorics, Asian/Asian American rhetorics, working class rhetorics, etc., it also includes appropriate coursework taken in other inter/disciplinary programs (American Indian Studies, African & African American Studies, Gender Studies, Chicano/Latina Studies, English, History, Anthropology, etc.).

Required for concentration (3 credits)

  • WRA 848 American Cultural Rhetorics (S)

Electives for concentration (6 credits)
With the guidance and approval of their guidance committee, students should assemble at least 6 credit hours in courses appropriate for the Cultural Rhetorics concentration. It is generally expected that students will take advantage of courses offered by Rhetoric & Writing faculty before they search outside of the program and/or college for appropriate concentration coursework.

Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing
The concentration in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing (DRPW) is intended for students who want to teach and do research in rhetoric and technology, computers and composition, digital media arts and writing, visual rhetoric, technical communication, or professional writing. Students electing this concentration should make sure to develop the advanced technological skills necessary to succeed in this area. (Some students will have these skills entering the program; others may need to take additional course work to develop those skills.)

Required for concentration (6 cr.)
Both of the following courses:

  • WRA 415 Digital Rhetoric (3) (FS)
  • WRA 841 Professional Writing Theory and Research (3) (SS of odd years)

Elective for concentration (3 cr.)*
One of the following courses:

  • WRA 410 Advanced Web Authoring (3) (SS)
  • WRA 417 Multimedia Writing (3) (FS)
  • WRA 420 Advanced Technical Writing (3) (SS)
  • WRA 453 Proposal and Grant Writing (3) (FS)
  • WRA 482 Information and Interaction Design (3) (FS of even years)
  • WRA 852 Portfolio Workshop (3) (SS of odd years)
  • WRA 860 Visual Rhetoric (3) (SS)
  • WRA 877 Community Literacy (3) (SS of even years)
  • WRA 893B Internship in Professional Writing (FS, SS, US; scheduled individually)
  • AL 881 Teaching with Technology in Arts and Humanities (3) (FS, SS, US)
  • An STA graphic design course (in consultation with STA instructor)

* A relevant graduate course may be substituted with approval of student’s guidance committee.

Self-Designed Concentration
In consultation with their guidance committee, a student must petition the graduate committee for approval to complete a self-designed concentration. The letter of petition should provide the committee with a list of courses to be taken (minimum of 9 cr., although please note that most self-designed concentrations will require more than the minimum number of credits), a guidance committee  that is broadly representative of the breadth of the concentration, and a rationale for the concentration. The rationale should address how the proposed concentration will assist the student’s intellectual work and professional development in the field of rhetoric and writing.

Some examples of self-designed concentrations include Community Literacies and Nonfiction Writing. Below are samples of the coursework one might use to construct such a concentration.

Students who wish to study language and literacy in settings outside of schools and university  (e.g., workplaces, neighborhood organizations, non-profits, after-school programs, etc.) might design a Community Literacies concentration. Such a program of study might include WRA 877 Community Literacy, a language course like ENG 991A Topics in English Language Studies, and one of the following courses (depending on individual focus area):  AL 881 Teaching with Technology; AL 842 Writing Workshop for Teachers; ENG 841 Topics in the Teaching of English; ENG 991A Topics in English Language Studies; ENG 992A English Education Seminar; AL 842 Red Cedar Writing Project.

Students who find the many forms of literary and creative nonfiction (lyric, narrative, digital, and hybrid genres) central to their study of rhetoric, literacy, and culture might design a Nonfiction Writing concentration. Such a program would balance writing workshops with seminars and with internships in the nationally-recognized literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Such a program of study might include WRA 853 History of the Essay and WRA 854 Nonfiction Writing Workshop with the addition of one of the following: ENG 423 Advanced Creative Nonfiction Writing; WRA 893B Internship in Professional Writing; an appropriate AL891 or WRA 891(Special Topics) or AL 890 or WRA 890 (Independent Study) course.

Dual Concentration
Students who develop two concentrations are only required to take a concentration exam in one of the two areas; however, students must declare this exam area on their Report of the Guidance Committee, filed before they prepare their concentration exam. It is the responsibility of the student and of the guidance committee chair to insure that the guidance committee broadly represents both concentrations, especially the concentration in which the student will be examined.


PhD Language Requirement
The College of Arts and Letters requires that all PhD students complete all requirements. In Rhetoric & Writing, we believe multiple literacies are important for researchers, scholars, and professionals. Learning a second language is also useful for teachers working with increasing linguistically diverse students in K-college classrooms. Furthermore, for teachers at every level, the experience of language/literacy acquisition as a metadiscourse activity is useful in understanding the complexities of bilingualism  of second language learning and use, and of the rhetoricity of literacy practices.

Once their guidance committee is formed, a student should talk to their committee about their plans for completing the language requirement.

  • If meeting that requirement requires completing coursework, the language courses must be listed on the Report of the Guidance Committee.
  • If the student wishes to meet the language/literacy requirement with language/literacy coursework or experiences completed previous to degree work in the R&W PhD Program, or through non-course experiences planned for completion while a student in the R&W PhD Program, the student will need to gain approval from their guidance committee via a brief petition for those to meet the language requirement.

This petition should consist of a short (one-page) note or email making the request and providing a rationale for why the experiences should count toward satisfying the language requirement. Supporting documentation (e.g., course descriptions or syllabi), evidence, or testimony may be included. This petition should be submitted to the guidance committee as early as possible in the degree work. Once approved, the petition and a note of approval from the chair of the guidance committee should be sent to the director of the graduate school.

Language Options
Candidates must complete the language requirement through one of the following options:

  • Demonstrate second-year proficiency in a non-English language, indigenous American language, or American Sign Language.
  • Complete two courses in language variation.*
  • Complete two courses in African American vernacular English and rhetoric.*
  • Complete two courses in teaching English to speakers of other languages.*
  • With approval of guidance committee and as appropriate to the student’s research interests, complete two courses (or the equivalent) in other language/literature areas.*

* These cannot replicate courses taken to fulfill core or concentration requirements for the degree.

In their first year in the doctoral program, all PhD students will be advised by the director of Rhetoric & Writing until they establish a guidance committee by March 15.

During their second semester in the program, all doctoral students must form a guidance committee. After the student submits her/his Report of the Guidance Committee (which lists the guidance committee director and members), the student’s chair of the guidance committee becomes their major advisor.

Students should consult regularly with their chair–two or three times per year at a minimum during coursework, and more often once they are engaged in exams and dissertation research and writing.

Students who fail to form a guidance committee by the end of their first year are considered to be not making satisfactory progress. (See Section 5.0 Academic Standards.)

PhD Guidance Committee
The guidance committee consists of four MSU faculty, one of whom should be designated as chair. The student’s guidance committee must be approved by the director of Rhetoric &Writing. The student may make changes in her/his guidance committee at any time and for any reason with the approval of the director of Rhetoric & Writing.

The guidance committee does the following:

  • consults with the student about their work and progress throughout their time in the program;
  • makes recommendations regarding the student’s course of study, including needed coursework;
  • reviews the student’s Annual Review portfolio each year;
  • files the student’s Annual Progress report;
  • serves as the PhD comprehensive exam committee, developing the questions for the core exam and evaluating the student’s responses to the core;
  • comprehensive, and pre-dissertation exams;
  • serves to guide and respond to the student throughout the dissertation research process;
  • offers comments and responds to dissertation drafts;
  • sits as the dissertation defense examination committee, certifying the student’s work on both the dissertation and the defense exam.

Guidance Committee Selection.
By March 15 of the first year of coursework, students are expected to select a guidance committee. When choosing this committee, students select the committee that will supervise their remaining coursework and will oversee their comprehensive examinations. Although students should select some faculty with whom they think they might want to work during the dissertation, students should also remember that the constitution of the committee can, and sometimes should, change as they approach their concentration examination. A workshop offering advise about committee selection is offered each year by the program.

Because the PhD concentration exam is intended to move a student closer to a dissertation topic and to funnel exam work toward the dissertation prospectus, once students have successfully completed the PhD core examination, they should meet with the chair of their guidance committee to discuss the specifics of the concentration exam, both in terms of the schedule for taking that exam and in terms of possible dissertation topics. This is also a good time for students to make adjustments in the guidance committee members or chair–with an eye toward selecting committee members who will oversee the concentration exam, approve the dissertation prospectus, supervise the dissertation process, and help prepare for the dissertation defense.

In the third year of doctoral study, the student’s guidance committee becomes, in effect, a dissertation committee. At this time, the student may decide to add a fifth member to the committee (which may be a faculty member at another university).

Annual Progress Report and Annual Review Portfolio
See Section 5.0 Academic Standards for more detailed description.

Every student in the PhD program will develop and maintain an ongoing research and teaching portfolio, which will be used once per year by the student’s guidance committee to review the student’s progress. This portfolio (which can be print, electronic, or a combination) will include samples of the student’s work during the degree program–including:

  • representative work done in courses (the student should include good, excellent, and even not-so-good work);
  • professional work done outside courses (e.g., conference presentations); and
  • teaching material (e.g., course evaluations, syllabuses, instructional material).

The portfolio should also include a reflective essay that provides evidence of reasoning and reflection on how the student’s program has affected his/her research and teaching, and understanding of that work in terms of professional goals.

Students are to meet the committee formation and course requirements specified for the academic year (beginning in the fall) in which they officially enter the program.