Role-play work and contested authority in policy and legal writing : a case study of domestic partner benefit advocacy




Little, Megan Dodd

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Rhetoricians have long been interested in public policy discourse. However, studies have yet to apply the micro-lens of writing process to this context. One consequence is that, while studies of policy discourse point to the complexity of this area, they do not investigate the writing behaviors this complexity inspires. Secondly, while studies of writing process in other areas of rhetoric allow us to theorize process, our theories are typically based on more structured writing environments—such as the classroom, academic discipline, and professional workplace. As a consequence, we know less about invention and other writing processes in more unpredictable, explicitly contested settings. To address these gaps, this dissertation presents a process-based case study of collaborative writing within the context of policy and legal discourse. The case study tracks the year-long work of a group of advocates who attempted to establish Domestic Partner Benefits (DPB) at a large public university. Due to legal restrictions, the writers could not assume a clear authority as they attempted to write a policy proposal together. In meetings in which they invented ideas, a prominent behavior emerged in their talk, what this dissertation refers to as role-play work. Role-play work is a theory of rhetorical invention in which writers propose roles for themselves and their audiences, develop arguments from within those roles, and try to identify how they might be recognized or misrecognized as a consequence of assuming roles. Tracing patterns in the writers’ talk, this dissertation describes role-play work at three critical junctures: in the early stages, when the group lacks legal resources, during a tumultuous hunger strike in which the institution delivers its interpretation of the law, and during the group’s later writing process, when the group has a working understanding of a legal argument they can propose. This dissertation analyzes how writers use role-play to engage authoritative discourse that manifests at each stage: first, to imaginatively co-construct what might be authoritative, next, to confront authority-as-articulated, and finally, to understand the nuance of a potentially authoritative argument. Findings presented in this dissertation may be relevant to scholarship in professional and technical communication, collaborative writing and invention, writing process research, policy discourse, discourse analysis, and queer studies.




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