English Ph.D. Dissertations


First-year Composition Handbooks: Buffering the Winds of Change

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English/Rhetoric and Writing

First Advisor

Kristine Blair (Advisor)


This dissertation discusses composition history treatments and the scant amount of scholarly research devoted solely to composition textbooks, though scholars such as Robin Varnum and Stephen North argue that studying textbooks cannot divulge much about the history of composition instruction. However, in “Handbooks” History of a Genre” and “Handbook Bibliography,” Robert Connors sets in motion detailed historical studies of composition textbooks. Composition textbooks can provide insight into how publishers think instructors should teach students or how colleges want instructors to teach students—merely how students should learn to write, what students should learn about writing. Most importantly, this dissertation explores structural changes of handbooks by: first, in Chapter Three, defining the composition handbook genre as one comprised of textbooks that help instructors mark essays and help students correct essays; Second, in Chapter Four, tracing the development of purely American composition textbooks from the 1800s to 2005, namely by describing how John C. Hodges's Harbrace College Handbook has evolved since it's first printing in 1941; and third, comparing features in the most recent editions of Harbrace to features in current textbooks: The St. Martin's Handbook and Penguin Handbook. Though the composition handbook genre has markedly changed during the last century, I conclude Chapter Four by arguing that the guiding theory behind composition handbooks has not changed. New handbook chapters dedicated to writing with computers or composing in a digital age merely come with corresponding correction codes. Though Connors argues in 1983 that composition handbooks have not changed although composition theory has, my exploration of handbooks shows that handbooks have remained largely similar to Woolley's Handbook, first published in 1907. Handbooks have since then and still exist as tools to assist grading (instructor) and correcting (student) compositions. Because composition handbooks still have structures similar to the 1941 edition of Harbrace, in Chapter Five I discuss hyperliteracy and propose further research into the usability of composition handbooks, as current students generally know how to navigate hypermedia though handbooks have retained their index-driven form.