Category Archives: Rhetoric and Composition

PhD: A Mission in Itself

By Suanna H. Davis

I was awarded my PhD in 2000. My major field was Rhetoric and Composition, which is a subset of English, focused on writing theory, practice, and pedagogy.

My dissertation topic [was] a rhetorical examination of the missionary newsletters of the Churches of Christ.
It has been so long ago, that I have no idea when I decided upon the topic. I remember that I was frustrated with the theories presented in my rhetoric courses, which all presupposed the lack of God, something I personally disagreed with and still feel is an issue with many theories. I remember that I wanted to pursue a topic that was experiential, and my other choice was very emotionally traumatic; the death of my chair for that topic allowed me to change the topic without repercussions.

When I began, I was a young (according to Dr. Lauer) PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at Purdue. Usually graduate students will find a dissertation that combines both of their major fields. My first field was rhetoric and composition and my second field was Old English languages and literature. I was unsuccessful in finding a topic that interested me and combined both Old English and rhetoric. After two promising ideas were exploded because “You won’t be able to research the topic,” I abandoned Old English studies entirely in my quest for dissertation material.  

Instead my background and experience prior to Purdue lead me to my dissertation topic. 

I wrote on the rhetorical construction of missionary newsletters for the Churches of Christ, a small, non-hierarchical group with quite a few missionaries for their size. The Churches of Christ have no missionary organizations and each individual missionary must find an overseeing congregation and raise funds themselves. There is no funnel for would-be missionaries, little help, and limited education in how to write, raise funds, or keep in touch with the congregations. I know a lot about the churches and their structures because I am a lifetime member of the Churches of Christ.

My work experience was one of the reasons I chose my topic. Before graduate school, I spent two years overseas working as a secretary in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland with the Spanish-speaking church of my denomination. While there, I also translated articles for and typed an international Spanish-language church magazine. My boss was a missionary to the Spanish-speaking immigrants and I was considered a missionary apprentice. While I was in Switzerland, I wrote my own missionary newsletter to supporters and colleagues. Then following my return to the States, while working as a high school teacher and in graduate school, I did some editing work for a missionary newsletter and a missionary magazine. So I had personal experience both as a short-term missionary and working with missionary writing.

My educational experience was also instrumental in choosing the dissertation topic. While I have a BSEd with majors of History and English, an MA in English, and a PhD in English, I also have taken twenty-one graduate school hours in missions-related classes, including six which I took following my first year as a PhD candidate. Both my rhetoric and composition courses and the missions classes helped me to examine and understand the newsletters I was scrutinizing.

Originally I was hoping to see how the missionary newsletters impacted the local congregations, but I found they didn’t. In fact, many members within the congregations did not even know their congregation supported missionaries. This lack of knowledge was so pervasive that at one of the larger congregations, even staff members did not know that the church financially supported missions. 

Because I could not see or show any change in the local congregations based on the newsletters, I had to find a different approach. Because of that, I looked at the genre of newsletters, theories of discourse analysis, genre analysis, and social epistemic rhetoric. I also did an audience analysis and looked at what factors increased the congregations’ awareness of their participation with missions. The audience analysis was useful in practical ways, but not particularly useful for the dissertation. However, the other aspects were sufficient to develop a dissertation from.


My significant involvement with my church and the work of missionaries -not simply my own experience – led me to desire to study the main communication venue (at the time) of missionaries on the field. Obviously most of the factors that went into my decision to study this topic were extra-curricular or at least not related to my graduate degree program. 

Until I finished my PhD in 2000, I had moved about every two years (on average) for my entire life. Because of these moves, I had been a member of over fifteen churches, some with very different views of tradition, dogma, and missions. This allowed me to see that the congregations were different based on beliefs and actions and I categorized churches based on what I knew of them and chose congregations from different categories who were known within the Churches of Christ for supporting missions.

The missionary newsletters I examined were not only from the Churches of Christ and from missionaries who were overseen by supportive congregations. I also chose congregations from the state of Texas, where the Churches of Christ are particularly strong. In addition all of the missionaries whose writing I read were overseen and supported primarily by churches in cities, rather than rural or town populations.

The work was engrossing, especially as at the time I was still considering returning to the mission field myself.

Since I was a homeschooling mother of two when I finished, the work took longer than it should have, twelve years, and I am particularly appreciative of Dr. Lauer’s encouragement and help. When I talk to graduate students now, I recommend finishing the dissertation first. While I wouldn’t trade my husband, whom I married during my coursework at Purdue, or my children, who were born after my coursework was finished and I was in a job which would convert to tenure-track upon the completion of my dissertation, the dissertation is definitely easier to finish if your only commitment is to finishing the dissertation.

 

Suanna H. Davis is an assistant professor at Abilene Christian University where she teaches rhetoric and composition. She gained her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University (US) in 2000. Her blog Teaching College English focuses on aspects of teaching, but includes her life as a voluntary and then job-hunting adjunct, her  job search, various presentation and publishing sagas, and a more complete biography. You can follow her on Twitter @DrDavisTCE.

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