Date of Award

Fall 12-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)





Committee Chair

Ellen Weinauer

Committee Chair Department


Committee Member 2

Michael Mays

Committee Member 2 Department


Committee Member 3

Jameela Lares

Committee Member 3 Department


Committee Member 4

Julie Lindquist

Committee Member 4 Department


Committee Member 5

Sheldon Walcher

Committee Member 5 Department



In what ways does legal discourse influence our perceptions of students labeled as basic writers and these students’ perceptions of themselves? How does standards-based discourse affect student writers’ abilities to define themselves in academe? This dissertation involves an examination of legal and public discourse surrounding Ayers v. Fordice, one of the most prominent desegregation cases in higher education, in an attempt to answer these questions. Its intent is to explore how conceptual metaphors prevalent in these discourses affect our understandings of basic writing programming in the state of Mississippi but also in the field of composition more globally.

My project is framed within three fields of study: composition theory, studies of language and law, and socio-cognitive linguistics. My study begins by contextualizing the exigency for additional research regarding how legal discourse impacts institutional policies, public discourse, and composition classrooms. I then examine how legal discourse shapes institutional policies and public discourse surrounding basic writing programming through critical discourse analysis of the federal judicial opinions that constitute the Ayers case and identify three primary conceptual metaphors that are repeated throughout the twenty-five year long case. This study led me to conduct archival research regarding how the public responded to the court case and the institutional agreements that resulted. The same conceptual metaphors present in the judicial opinions of the case were overwhelmingly present in archived federal and local newspaper articles as well as letters to state government officials from private citizens.

My readings of these documents show that while the final Ayers settlement suggests additional access for Mississippi students traditionally denied entry to college, the legal and public discourse addressing the case does not support these same aims. The study concludes by calling for an awareness of how conceptual metaphors are yoked to the discourse surrounding basic writing programs among writing program administrators and presenting suggestions for making rhetorical spaces that will allow basic writing students to define themselves.