English Ph.D. Dissertations


Theorizing Mental Models in Disciplinary Writing Ecologies through Scholarship, Talk-Aloud Protocols, and Semi-Structured Interviews

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English (Rhetoric and Writing) PhD

First Advisor

Lee Nickoson (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Kristine L. Blair (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Jorge Chavez (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Sue Carter Wood (Committee Member)


This project explores how disciplinary habits of mind are circulated through forms of representation to instantiate English Studies disciplines, institutions which then shape scholars' practices for producing knowledge. Using a critical discourse analysis on scholarship, semi-structured interviews, and a talk-aloud protocol, I find that scholars' thinking and writing rely heavily on mental models. Scholars employ small-scale working representations of dynamic systems to help them reason through disciplinary problem spaces, including research questions and composing issues. Unlike the sciences, English Studies fields have not fully exploited mental models in research and teaching; nor have they been considered fully in writing studies' research on cognition and writing. In order to understand the role of mental models in writing and disciplinarity, I employ ecology theory to link the representational nature of mind to external media. I find that as scholars write, they produce complex mental models of disciplinary content that are comprised of objects of study, relationality between these objects, and discipline-specific forms of dynamism applied to "run" the models. Mental models are multimodal compositions that employ representational modalities afforded by "mind," such as force, image, and affect; their design reveals scholars' tacit values and assumptions. My research suggests that reflecting on mental models can enable scholars to extend their reasoning and critically evaluate their assumptions. During writing and revision, scholars model a generic reader's mind "unfolding" as it encounters the writing in order to anticipate eventual readers' "situation models." Scholars also model hypothetical exchanges with familiars with whom they have previously written in order to predict critiques and feedback. Mental models have a significant role in enculturating new members and constructing and maintaining disciplinarity. I propose that a facility with mental models is a significant component of reasoning-based "literacies" and suggest ways that scholars and teachers can make deliberate use of mental models in scholarship and in teaching writing. I describe the significance of mental models in knowing and composing in new media contexts with multimodal affordances that compare and contrast to those of the mind. I also suggest additional methods for analyzing and collecting data on mental models and writing.