Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

David R. Russell


Nine first-year agricultural engineering students enrolled at a large, public, land grant university, who participated in a learning community which featured linked English and engineering courses, are featured in this study. The linked courses were selected and designed to help students overcome the perception that first-year composition is an encapsulated activity unrelated to the engineering curriculum and to foster an environment in which the students were encouraged to make useful or meaningful connections between the disciplines of composition and engineering. Vygotsky's cultural historical activity theory serves as a theoretical framework for the study. In addition, Russell's (1997) synthesis of activity theory and Bazerman's genre systems theory serves as a heuristic for examining the various assignments written by the students in their linked courses. The research suggests that despite the organizational structure of linked courses and course curricula that had been designed to foster students' interdisciplinary connections through their writing experiences, the students were often unable to perceive connections between their linked courses. Indeed, the students often perceived discoordinations and contradictions between the composition and engineering courses, which sometimes fostered feelings of psychological double binds or what one student described as feeling "pulled in two completely opposite directions." Importantly, when students were afforded zones of proximal development (ZPD), they were able to resolve these feelings, were further able to perceive the relevance of the first-year composition course (a general education course), and were motivated to engage in their coursework in important new ways. The ZPDs helped place the students in the role of sense-maker, a role which fostered students' authority and confidence as writers in the university. Data collected during focus groups, individual discourse-based interviews, and end-of-semester reflective writing suggested that two first-year composition tools fostered the students' perceptions of connections or linking between the learning community courses: (1) the rhetorical concept of audience and (2) the introduction of specific genres into their first-year composition curriculum.



Digital Repository @ Iowa State University,

Copyright Owner

Patricia Lynn Collins Harms



Proquest ID


File Format


File Size

262 pages