GMU's Professional Writing and Rhetoric MA program culminates in a capstone course where students complete projects that build on the methods, theories, and previous research from their coursework. The projects demonstrate to the faculty the students' best work and show how the students can apply academic knowledge and methods to solving a writing or rhetorical problem in an academic, public, or workplace setting.

MA Capstone Projects

Spring 2013

"Outreach Front and Center: A Soft Power BluePrint"
Talia Bush

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This white paper addresses the challenges that the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX) faces in meeting its congressional mandate to raise awareness to private sector companies of the threat to their sensitive US economic information and technology that are targeted by the intelligence services, private sector companies, academic and research institutions, and citizens of foreign countries. Although some companies are aware of the inherent risks to their businesses practices, they are reluctant to allow government review of information and its hiring and other business practices to alleviate these risks to government satisfaction. Furthermore, companies see little immediate return on investment to such programs. ONCIX is relatively powerlessness in this situation, as it has no regulatory authority over the companies it seeks to persuade. I propose that using soft power/smart power theory can improve weaknesses in ONCIX's current strategic communication program through cooperative and ethos-building practices. I identify guidelines, principles, and activities that constitute an effective soft power approach to the organization's particular challenges. The results of this study carry implications to risk communication practices throughout local, state, and federal government.

"Aggressively Treating Cancer: Ideological Naturalization Represented in News Discourse and Online Forums"
Cameron Carter

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Palliative and hospice care are becoming more acceptable treatment options within our society, but resistance to non-aggressive treatment remains. Because common-sense is culturally constructed, I analyzed feature articles and online forum threads, searching the discourse for the 'common-sense' notion that aggressive treatment is reflected or encouraged as the valued or naturalized choice for cancer patients. This naturalization was present in the following ways: aggressive treatment was figured as the means for reaching the resolution within the narrative arc; the battle metaphor reinforced the need and desire to survive; the undertaking of aggressive treatment was no longer figured as the main decision point; and palliative and hospice care were often omitted or represented adversely. I hoped this study would benefit non-survivors by choice in its aim to incorporate non-aggressive treatment options as acceptable responses to their situations.

"Improving the Customer's Experience: Stop Wasting Time and Money Just Because You're Afraid to Abandon a Legacy Feature"
Lucy Connor

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How do computer users want to receive help while they use software? To answer this question, I conducted a series of documentation usability tests. These tests required the participants to complete three tasks with the option to utilize help documentation—an identical user manual in paper or  online form. After the test, the users completed a survey on their preferences for receiving help. I used the results of the usability tests and surveys, along with a review of the relevant literature, to make recommendations to my company as to how we could improve our customers' experience.

"Preparing High School Students to Write and Think Critically: Do Standardized Tests Impede Critical Thinking Abilities?"
Kristin George

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This study identified the extent to which high school English teachers are able to teach critical thinking under the current educational system; while high school teachers are, oftentimes, required to prepare students for standardized testing, college professors generally prepare students to develop higher level-thinking and analysis. This study sought to assess high school English teachers' beliefs regarding critical thinking and its importance as well as the teachers' viewpoints concerning college readiness. The main question explored was: to what degree do high school teachers believe they can teach critical thinking under the current educational system? To answer this question, four accomplished high school English teachers were interviewed in order to explore their assessment of student critical thinking and the high school curriculum's capability to develop analytic skills through writing. Ultimately, this study indicated that high school teachers regard critical thinking as extremely important in student writing, yet are often hindered in their ability to teach critical thinking due to limitations such as extensive requirements to prepare students for standardized testing. This research further demonstrated the need for a greater focus on critical thinking. If students are to be adequately prepared for college and the workplace, critical thinking must be developed in high school, and high school English teachers should be allowed the time necessary to devote their teaching to critical thinking.

"Nonacademic Career Prospects for PhDs in Professional Writing & Rhetoric"
Joy D. Loving

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This research paper investigates the nonacademic job market for PhDs in professional writing, rhetoric, technical communication (PW/R/TC) and related fields. Results show a small nonacademic job market for these PhDs, which includes work in the federal government, medical sciences, and other industries. Findings also show that obtaining the PhD in PW/R/TC may hinder the employment of prospective graduates. It should be noted that the results of this research are based on a comparatively small number of informants.

"Handbook of Ideas to Incorporate Writing into the Community ESL Classroom"
Jacquelyn Rioux

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Volunteer teachers in community ESL programs lack resources for incorporating writing into their courses, which often focus on oral communication skills rather than on writing. For this project, I developed a resource book, focused on incorporating writing into the community ESL classroom, to supplement the curricular materials new volunteer instructors receive from their programs. Scholarship on adult ESL learners in non academic settings is limited, and I proceeded on the assumption that expertise in such instruction can be found both in scholarly works and in the accounts of experienced practitioners. Therefore I drew on both kinds of sources to identify best practices and developed the guide, which presents an array of recommended approaches, assignments, and feedback options for teaching writing to adult ESL learners in community settings.

"Developing Learning Outcomes in Professional Writing and Technical Communication Programs: Obstacles, Benefits, and Potential for Graduate Program Improvement"
Brett Say

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Primarily in response to the global trend of increased emphasis on curricular assessment, much has been written in recent years on the benefits of student learning outcomes as a means of improving program validity within higher education institutions. Much of the discussion to date, however, has been placed on the assessment of undergraduate curriculum with less emphasis on graduate programs of study. For the field of professional writing, a field that has long discussed the need for increased program credibility as a whole, and has recently experienced an increase in graduate programs within the field, the need to explore how learning outcomes can improve graduate programs and benefit the field in general is of particular interest. Additional exploration is needed to gauge the commitment of our field to this trend and identify reasons for adoption and/or resistance. While many researchers within the field of professional writing have written about the benefits of adopting student learning outcomes assessment as a means to improve program validity, not all stakeholders have been convinced of their necessity or effectiveness. Institutional resistance to learning outcomes implementation still exists and additional analysis of their usefulness is needed to address those concerns. Moreover, program faculty and administrators who have supported their adoption may not yet feel adequately prepared to apply them to their programs, possibly due to a lack of information on how to specifically develop them within their respective disciplines.

"Inter-Disciplinarity in Technical Writing: An Examination of the Place of the Cognate Course in Master's-Level Professional Writing/Technical Communication Programs"
Ben Shaffer

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Though increasingly viewed as a benefit to students in professional writing programs, cognate courses—those courses taken outside of the home department—remain uneasily situated in the curriculum of most programs, requiring a set of ad hoc arrangements to make them accessible to interested parties. Through web-based research and semi-structured interviews, four principal barriers to expediting cognate study were identified. In addition, several "workaround" solutions, which have evolved over the years to help meet the need, have evolved and display flexibility and adaptivity. However, because a presumption of relevance for many cognates is lacking in some quarters, the implementation of these solutions is far from ideal. In order to keep curriculums responsive to the needs of the marketplace and to ensure that students are receiving adequate training for their eventual careers, periodic reassessments of program design and the use of such innovations as cognate study are a continued necessity.

"A Line, But Thinly Drawn And In The Wrong Place: Habermas, Macintyre, And The Peculiar Virtues Of The Political Blogosphere"
Adam Swiger

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Discussion in political blogs, especially across political-ideological divides, tends to feature insulting and vulgar language and not to be conducive to rational deliberation or the reaching of consensus by rhetorical means. However, Alasdair MacIntyre's arguments for locally grounded, narratively and historically embedded traditions of morality and rationality facilitate an understanding of blogs' moral purposes beyond typical Habermasian assumptions about the pursuit of rational consensus amongst conflicting claims. An analysis of six conversation threads from two blogs representing rival political-ideological traditions suggests four main kinds of practices by which blog discussion helps to sustain blogs as moral communities: demonstrative enactment of membership in the community; articulation of narratives that embody the moral tradition, including values and rationality, of the community; debate amongst competing strains within the tradition; and exclusion of participants and utterances that threaten the community in its pursuit of its moral telos or purpose. These practices permit the use of rhetoric that may seem unusual, and require virtues that may seem peculiar, from a Habermasian moral perspective.

"Collaborative Proposal Writing"
Lisa F. Young

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Despite the presence of courses in proposal writing for professionals in the industry, there is a lack of literature and guidance on how to teach collaborative writing in the classroom, specifically for proposals.  Research on collaborative writing in a Federal proposal development center for a large IT company may determine what is required in terms of proficiencies, expertise, and aptitudes regarding the integrated, interdisciplinary model of collaborative writing.  I conducted research that describe this particular model of collaborative writing to assist proposal writing teachers in tailoring their instruction on such practices and skills.  My data sources included formal and informal interviews, company proposals and documents, observations, literature reviews, and key informants. This research may assist an audience of proposal writing teachers who want to teach up-to-date collaboration practices and skills to their students.   

Spring 2012

"Disruptive Education: Applications for Mobile Assisted Language Learning"
Corrinne Callins

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This report examines the latest developments and research regarding mobile-assisted language learning to what pedagogic approaches to English as a second language (ESL) instruction they support, and then to compare what is currently available in mobile learning technology against the findings of the literature review to develop a picture of the gaps that exists between what is needed and what is currently available in MALL applications. The report is threefold and contains a literature review to uncover what's needed regarding the features and content of language learning applications (apps) geared toward ESL learners, an analysis of a sample of 10 MALL applications currently on the Android market, and recommendations based on the analysis. The recommendations will assist international education stakeholders and application developers in creating mobile learning curriculums geared toward beginning English learners under the age of ten.

"The Persuasion of Plastic: The Rhetorical Moves Made in Retail Credit Card Programs"
Erin Cushing

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An ethnographic study of a retail apparel store in Northern Virginia sought to identify successful rhetorical moves in the company credit card sales program. Employee sales pitches were examined as rhetorical arguments and analyzed as to discover which rhetorical elements, if any, were being used. Research found that employees were engaging in rhetorical moves, namely by establishing a rhetorical appeal, using individual invention and disposition in their arguments, and showing an awareness of the rhetorical situation by actively choosing audiences for a higher success rate. Managerial documents relating to credit card program were also analyzed, and showed that managers could better take the rhetorical situation into account when spurring employees on to greater efforts.

"Ensuring Accurate Data Capture and Building in Usability for a New Usability Form Used by a Federal Agency"
Joy Fulton

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Usability Testing (UT) is a process to provide objective data regarding the ease of use for a web site. Existing testing methods have been inadequate to accurately capture information that would lead to the improvement of various sites in the federal agency for which I work. Results from web site UT using existing methods is provided, as well as an examination of processes to improve the data collection form. The findings suggest a new form is required to improve the UT. An improved form is developed and tested, and the underlying research validates the new form and its benefits.

"Connecting through Twitter: How Interactivity Contributes to Establishing Success in Marketing for Businesses Online"
Randi Lee

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I examined the rhetorical decisions that three local area businesses made in marketing themselves through the social media site, Twitter. Using Bitzer's theory of the rhetorical situation along with conducting phone interviews and a textual analysis of each business's tweets, I discovered that businesses tended to shape their tweets toward the type of audience they wanted to attract and that their tweets reflected the type of business that they were running and the identity of the store. I also discovered that the 140 character limit of Twitter posed a major constraint to some businesses that lead them to use Facebook for posting messages instead. Lastly, I discovered that the interactivity between the businesses and their audience online was very important in establishing a successful relationship between the two and in turn created an atmosphere where the audience (as customers) felt more valued and appreciated. As a result of embracing social media to market their businesses, all three stores that took part in this study claimed to see an increase in business.

"Email Communications of Power & Authority in Organizational Hierarchy: A Textual Study of Change Communications within a Growing Organization"
Melissa McElfish

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This project focuses on how the executive leadership in my company communicates organizational changes by email. I've seen tremendous growth in my organization over the past 5 years, so I'm analyzing these emails sent to the staff listserv to understand how they have transformed along with the organization over time. As the organization has grown, the chain of command has expanded significantly, which has expanded the pool of people who disseminate information about changes in the organization. Because of this, I'm interested in how the emails support and reinforce this evolving organizational hierarchy.

"Genres worth Analyzing: A Description of TEDTalks"
Bridgetta Parker

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TEDTalks have swept the globe as a new form of entertaining information and educational media. By using Carolyn R. Miller's theory of genre as social action and Amy Devitt's suggestion of formal features as guiding points for a description, this article aims to be a pilot study for this genre and its description and how its constraints help define the genre and ensure its success.

"Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder? Examining the Fashion Advertising Image as an Interpretive Transaction Site"
Misti Riley

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This project analyzes rhetorical mechanisms behind images used to advertise women's fashions to determine how selected advertisements function as a transaction site between what's pictured and the viewer's interpretation. In the analysis, America's Next Top Model (ANTM) will serve as an example of the living image, which dismantles the portrayal of perfection found in still images such as those found in popular fashion magazines. Using a series of sample images and ANTM, I analyze how these images perpetuate a social institution, which implicates and gradually conditions women to look and behave in ways reinforced through ideology or practices that repeat themselves indefinitely to create norms concerning what is beautiful and desirable.

"Documenting Project Launches in an International Organization: Standard Operating Procedure Analysis and Creation"
Rebecca Rivard

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For this project I created a standard operating procedure (SOP) to document project launches in a company that provides services to scholarly publishers. The company currently has few documented procedures, which leads to inconsistency because there is work done between the U.S. and India, a high turnover rate, and an increasing volume of work. I used content analyses and interviews to create a detailed list of steps for managers to take in setting up new clients, including information that must be gathered from client, documents that must be created before the start-up, and what information must be discussed in the turnover meeting.

"Investigating College Students' Preferred Mediums for Accessing Online News"
Sara Ronken

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Based on the ideas set forth by the "uses and gratifications" theory and the "information needs" theory, this study looks at medium preference as it relates to online news. More specifically, it examines how general medium-related behavior, type of information accessed, and physical contexts correlate with medium preference. The findings of a survey of 172 undergraduate students at George Mason University suggest that in today's technologically advanced society, text is still a significant medium. However, the findings also show that because a combination of video and text is also often preferred, video is still vital when consuming news online.

"Elite Media's Tea Party News Framing: Bloggers Talk Back"
Lori Swanberg

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In 2009, the Tea Party movement attracted media coverage through the organization of local and national Tea Party-related events. Soon, many in the blogosphere took issue with the way the events were framed by elite media. This research rhetorically analyzed media criticism bloggers' posts to reveal their identification of a rich repertoire of elite media framing practices used to report on the Tea Party movement and its participants. The results suggest that bloggers are using new media tools--and using framing practices they critique---to "talk back to power" and challenge elite media's monopoly of interpretation of events.

Spring 2011

"Communicating Federal Sustainability Mandates at an Architecture and Engineering Firm"
Michelle DiPenti

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This project focused on the development of a prototype e-learning session and reference documents designed to teach users about federal sustainability mandates as expressed in various public laws, executive orders, and agency documents. The project included research into professional writing and rhetoric methods as well as multimedia design methods and recommendations as well as interviews with subject-matter experts. The final products included the e-learning prototype, reference documents, and a report on the research and design process.

"Core Competencies of Professional Communicators: A Survey of George Mason University Professional Writing and Editing/Rhetoric MA Graduates"
Deborah Dailey and Galynn Giusti

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In the field of technical and professional communication, there is an ongoing debate between academia and industry over what skills are necessary for professional communicators to succeed on the job; during the course of our graduate study at George Mason University we became interested in exploring how the program handled this issue. By interviewing alumni who have graduated within the last one to four years, we hoped to determine what skills they have identified as necessary for professional communicators in an entry-level position and beyond. The responses from the participants identified common skills that the graduates use and value, and our reports suggests that it would be beneficial for the MA in Professional Writing and Rhetoric to review and consider these responses.

"Writing without the Degree: How Professional Writing Skills are Learned Outside of the Professional Writing Classroom"
Cassandra Horton

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Forthcoming.

"Expanding the Discursive Playing Field of Professional Sports Leagues and Discovering New Identities in the Apologetic Texts of the NBA and NFL"
Jack Lloyd

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Based on a theoretical framework of identity construction and inter-discursive uses of language, this research examines how professional sports leagues participate in other discourses and construct identities that are separate from the long-held perceptions of these leagues. Focusing on the NBA and NFL, this study takes a discourse-analysis approach to the study of texts—including press conferences, interviews, and congressional testimonies— that serve as sites of identity formation for these organizations.

"Identity and Invitation in Facebook Status Updates"
Christy Britton Seney

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The most commonly cited reason for using Facebook is to keep up with people; however, I believe more reasons for using the popular networking site exist. Through my research, I have found that in their posts, Facebook users engage two key rhetorical practices: invitation and identification. My analysis shows that status updates appear to align with the notion of invitational rhetoric or the concept of identification according to Kenneth Burke. At times, they demonstrate characteristics of both.

"Hillary Clinton and the Media's Reluctance for Gender Equality"
Elizabeth Stuart

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This study focused on Hillary Clinton's 2008 Presidential candidacy and how the media's concentration on Clinton's gender ultimately undermined her campaign. Multiple media outlets were examined for occurrences of the mentioning of Clinton's gender and the subsequent effects that such gendering caused not only to Clinton's candidacy but also to the public as a whole. This study goes through specific examples of the gendering of Clinton, focusing on her appearance, emotions, and identities.

"The Employee Manual: Its Purpose and Function in One Organization"
Melissa Webber

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Forthcoming.

"An Analysis of Sri Lankan Students' Facebook Posts: Using Facebook to Negotiate with a Multilingual World"
Kaviesha Wijeyeskera

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World Englishes scholars argue that academic writing should incorporate multiple ethnic Englishes so that students are better able to negotiate with a global population of multilingual speakers. By analyzing how Sri Lankan students communicated on Facebook, as a space where multiple languages come together, this project proposes that Facebook can be a space where students develop negotiation strategies for communicating with a multilingual population, and develop competencies to use language authoritatively by shuttling between languages.

"Unity, Idealized Identity and Cultural Pride: Community Building Among Latino Facebook Groups"
Jael Zeballos

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Forthcoming.

"Journalism Ethics Codes and the World Wide Web"
Matt Zoller

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Modern journalism ethics codes do not adequately address the challenges of journalism practiced online. Online journalism is more immediate, interactive and ubiquitous than older platforms (i.e. print and broadcast). Consequently, today's journalists face unfamiliar ethical situations when writing for the Web.  I interviewed five journalists to learn their thoughts regarding the adequacy of traditional ethics codes and how they negotiate the ethical challenges of the Web. I discovered that the movement of journalism onto the Web continues to generate debate about whether or not traditional ethics codes can sufficiently account for newfound ethical issues. I advocate that we are in need of a new, unique set of codes to govern the immediacy, interactivity and ubiquity of online journalism.

Spring 2010

"Improving Our Model for Working with Contractors"
Rosanna Alvarez

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This study focused on improving collaboration in a workplace process. The methodology involved researching collaboration models, conducting semi-structured interviews, and surveying participants. Findings from the interviews and surveys were analyzed and evaluated against the research. Based on this evaluation, recommendations to improve the process were made. The final deliverable was a long report to be submitted to the workplace decision-makers.

"Discussing Digital Books: The Rhetorical Evolution of Scholarly and Popular Discourse"
Courtney Chiaparas

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A body of scholarship describing the effects of digital technology on the book publishing industry is marked by a rhetorical pattern of excessive optimism and pessimism initially and more even-keeled assessments over time. I investigate whether this rhetorical pattern is exhibited by public discourse by examining eReader product-release discourse and reviews. My analysis reveals that this rhetorical pattern is exhibited by current public discourse: product-release discourse continues the optimistic vision, but product reviews mostly reflect the more tempered assessments of current scholarship over pessimistic polemics.

"War of the Words: The Debate Over the Use of Rhetoric Within Government Communications"
Carla Kayajanian

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This is a case study of strategic planning and the evolution of government rhetoric in Albemarle County, VA. Strategic planning was adopted in Albemarle County to improve the quality of public administration by replacing rhetoric with objective criteria and data. The article argues, however, that the Strategic Plan serves many rhetorical functions, supplying the data necessary for government officials to more clearly and more concretely deliberate, communicate, and defend their public administration priorities.

"Revising Danbury Forest's Resident Handbook: A Report for the Danbury Forest Board of Directors"
Stephanie Kern

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Danbury Forest's existing Handbook had only been revised once in over 30 years, and was largely outdated, poorly organized, and lacking in content. A user-centered design methodology was used to survey, interview, and conduct usability studies with community residents, whose feedback was then combined with traditional design principles to shape a revisions of the Handbook. The report announces the findings, summarizes the revisions, and makes recommendations for future updating.

"A Text Isn't Just a Text: Text Messaging Practices of Adults in Romantic Relationships"
Kara Murray

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This case study explores how adults in romantic relationships use text messaging to communicate with their partners. The study found that although text messaging was developed to send quick informational messages, in romantic relationships they are predominantly marked by features of phatic communication, which serves to maintain social connections rather than to communicate information. The use of text messaging in this way serves to strengthen romantic relationships according to its users.

"Visual-Verbal Collaboration: Understanding Third Meaning in Specific, Complementary Image-Text Interactions"
Jill Petzolt

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This interview study explores participant interpretations of complementary image and text combinations alone and together from two advertisements to examine how image and text meaning(s) may change when combined. The findings suggest that visual-verbal techniques based on similarity may be a more effective rhetorical tool for a wider audience and that a follow-up study could better understand types of audiences who may interpret a third meaning when the visual-verbal techniques are based on differences between text and image.

"Responsibility, Bipartisanship, and the Economy in Obama's Health Care Speech"
Cat Pham

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George Lakoff coined the term "The Obama Code" to describe seven of Obama's distinct rhetorical methods. This article applies Lakoff's code to the analysis of the President's health care speech, as well as to the analysis of conservative reactions to the speech. Results from the rhetorical analysis supports Lakoff's claim that despite Obama's incorporation of bipartisan ideas and argument that social issues are also economic issues, conservatives cannot be persuaded through Obama's rhetorical strategies.

"The Bubba to Scientist Ratio: How Workplace Writing in one Office Defines the Authority of a Technical Writer"
Kelly Rose

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This (auto)ethnography of a technical writer in a government program found that she was not granted authority in the office due to the organization's weak rhetorical situation, which both shaped the failing genre of her primary document and exacerbated an already complex relationship between herself and her colleagues. The article contributes new findings on the relationship between genre and authority in professional writing.

"An Online Format for the Young and the Restless: An Investigation of the Marketing Benefits of Interactive Video over Classic Video"
Shoa Tavassoli

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This pilot study examined responses of young professionals to a new digital format: interactive online video. Research participants viewed two videos with similar content. One video was in the classic linear format. The other video contained questions that required viewer response to continue and a menu for navigation. The study suggests that young professionals prefer interactive video over conventional online video. The article lays out the background research, findings and recommendations for a follow up marketing study.

PWR Contacts

  • Coordinator, MA concentration in PWR: Douglas Eyman, deyman@gmu.edu