Carnegie Mellon University

Rhetorical Praxis for Social Change

Author: Susan Swan
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2002

My dissertation is an inquiry into rhetorical methods for university/community collaborations geared towards social change. It follows a six year process, starting with a pilot project in a graduate policy course. The students in this course were trained in the Community Problem-Solving Dialogue strategies - strategies meant to access community expertise in order to build equitable knowledge constructions. Building on the first study, I followed a second policy course, this time with more training and focus on the CPSD strategies. The strategies opened access to important, situated data about Pittsburgh social problems; however, the policy students' transformed that data into inscription devices and preconceived academic categories as they created a final project according to the exigencies of genre, discipline, and professionalization.

Following the successes and failures of this course, I began a several-year inquiry into the food service industry, using a method called the Community Think Tank. This method grew from the policy studies, as it tried to cross cultural and disciplinary boundaries, construct a new genre for rhetorical praxis, and solve situated problems in the food service industry. In addition, this method is grounded in the theoretical and practical disciplines of community literacy, American pragmatism, activity theory, and radical and progressive education.

My dissertation follows the process of the participants in the Food Services Think Tank; I analyze collaborative conversations, interviews, and publications resulting from this process. I argue that the Think Tank's rhetorical strategies for community/university collaboration help participants gain access to each other's interpretive processes in order to build more sensitive problem representations, aid community and university members to be reflective about their own thoughts and practices (as well as the process of research), and help participants construct a strongly hybrid text that respects community expertise as a vital part of solving situated problems in the food service industry.