Date of Award

Winter 2010

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Director

Joyce Neff

Committee Member

Kevin E. Depew

Committee Member

Louise W. Phelps

Committee Member

Mary E. Wright


Understanding what students bring from one writing context to another may the central concern for teachers of writing from elementary school to adult learning. Research from the field of composition studies offers knowledge about writing as process(es) (Emig, 1971; Shaughnessy, 1979; Russell, 1999), as socially constructed performances (Flower & Hayes, 1980; Bartholomae, 1985; Bloom, 1985), and as part of a larger activity system (Russell, 1997). This dissertation ties together theories of writing as an activity in a broader system of tools and outcomes and current research on transfer in writing in order to illustrate writers' perspectives on particular writing tasks. Essential to the understanding of what students are doing is to know what tools students report using to complete familiar and unfamiliar writing tasks. Data collected include surveys of 148 students in a capstone writing course as well as interviews from 13 students who completed the survey while enrolled in the capstone writing course. Findings suggest that the concept of "high-road transfer" (Perkins & Salomon, 1988) is not present in participants' writing skills, processes, and knowledges as they approach what they perceive as unfamiliar writing tasks. Significant to this study is the finding that participants' perception informed their description of writing tasks. Certain familiar writing tasks were described as unfamiliar if parts of the tasks were altered. Furthermore, the perception of a writing task as unfamiliar informed the participant's use of external tools. Some participants experienced what the researcher termed a "moment of erasure" in which they claimed that the unfamiliar writing task was completely new and they had no idea what to do. The pedagogical implications are that if participants do not perceive certain familiar writing skills as applicable to the current task—when in fact, they should be, then it is as if those skills do not exist. Teaching for the unfamiliar may help to avoid the "moment of erasure." The final chapter presents pedagogical implications for instructors in light of the findings regarding writers' perspectives on familiar and unfamiliar writing tasks.


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