Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Sharon K. Zumbrunn, PhD

Second Advisor

Kathleen Cauley, PhD

Third Advisor

Jesse Senechal, PhD

Fourth Advisor

Micol Hutchison, PhD

Fifth Advisor

Scott Oates, PhD


Since the 1975 publication of Newsweek’s article asserting that “Johnny” can’t write, many have continued to support the claim that students graduating from American high schools and universities can’t write. This criticism has led many students to believe the problem lies exclusively with them. Efforts to improve students’ writing have had little effect, as reflected in continually concerning scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Recently, researchers have begun to suggest that the problem should be addressed by working to change students’ identification as a bad writer. Two constructs have emerged from these efforts: writer and authorial identity. Research on these constructs, however, is relatively recent and therefore limited. Further, the constructs have been investigated in separate literature bases, divided almost exclusively between English composition studies (writer identity) and psychology (authorial identity).

This study seeks to investigate students’ writer and authorial identities right at the entry point into college. Expectations for writing are different in college than they are in high school. College students, many of whom fall into the emerging adulthood phase of development, may experience difficulties writing in college if these different expectations aren’t made explicit. In addition, this study explores whether writer and authorial identity are two distinct constructs, or whether similarities between the two exist. Data were collected from a diverse sample of first-year undergraduates at a large, urban, public university in the southeastern United States. Using a mixed method research design, quantitative data on authorial identity were collected using a modified version of an existing scale to measure authorial identity; open-response questions provided the qualitative data. Mixed analyses of the quantitative and qualitative findings found areas of significant differences between the two constructs, but also areas of overlap. These findings suggest that authorial identity may be a more specific form of writer identity, one in which the writer’s authentic voice and knowledge are effectively represented in what is written. Although this study is a first step in trying to identify why “Johnny” can’t write, it provides evidence that viewing the problem through the lens of students’ writer and authorial identity warrants further investigation.


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