Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy




Rhetoric and Professional Communication

First Advisor

David R. Russell


This study investigates the similarities and differences of visual communication practices and conventions in the composition and biological sciences disciplines. Although scholars and instructors in Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) and composition have examined disciplinary differences in written communication, little is known about disciplinary differences of visual communication. While writing has been the central focus of composition classes, visuals are often key components of the composing process for individuals working in natural sciences fields like the biological sciences.

This dissertation reports the results from a two-part qualitative analysis research project: 1) an examination of how composition and general science-writing textbooks discuss visual communication conventions and 2) an evaluation of interviews with six instructors, three from composition and three from the biological sciences, who discuss their professional use of visuals. Specifically, the terms used to describe visuals, the pedagogical topics covered when teaching visual communication, and the participants’ processes for composing and reading visuals were examined.

The results indicate that some visual communication practices and conventions appear similarly in both the biological sciences and composition disciplines. These similarities center on instructional goals, practices, and concerns. For instance, the participants recognized the importance of visual communication to effective communication in the disciplines, even though they found gaps in their own instruction, and also observe students struggling with visuals and textbooks lacking strong visuals and visual communication instruction. Meanwhile, differences between and within these two disciplines do appear, which center on reading and composing processes and the instruction of those practices. Because these disciplinary distinctions exist, instruction of visual communication practices also differs across these two disciplines. Notably, though, visuals are crucial components of communication in both disciplines, yet participants in composition and the biological sciences agree that they find a lack of effective visual communication instruction.

This examination suggests that as WAC and composition instructors clarify their understanding of the use of visuals in a variety of academic writing contexts, they might enhance students’ awareness of visual communication conventions in composition and potentially aid their transfer of visual communication skills from composition courses to those in the biological sciences and other disciplines.


Copyright Owner

Erin Bethany Zimmerman



File Format


File Size

250 pages