Carnegie Mellon University

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The Topoi of Proposal Writing: Characteristic Arguments of the Academic Research, Nonprofit, Business, and Public Change Proposal Genres

posted on 2022-05-11, 15:19 authored by Emily DejeuEmily Dejeu

The proposal genre is ubiquitous in both academic and nonacademic contexts, but existing research has tended to focus on academic research proposal writing, while less scholarly attention has been devoted to non-academic proposals. To provide more insight into non-academic proposal writing and map rhetorical variation within the proposal genre, this dissertation uses corpus analysis, qualitative coding, structured interviewing, and classroom-based quasi-experimental research methods to identify some topoi of the nonprofit, business, public change, and academic research proposal genres. Chapter 2, which compares academic research and nonprofit grant proposals, highlights important differences in the arguments that academics and nonprofit administrators use to frame problems, set goals, and establish ethos. Chapter 3, which analyzes small business plans, suggests that small business entrepreneurs use nine topoi to build stability-focused arguments about value and credibility––a sharp contrast with the disruption-focused topoi that high-tech, high-growth entrepreneurs use. Finally, Chapter 4 outlines six topoi of proposing public change that the experienced graduate students whose proposals I analyzed often used to show sensitivity to audience and to suggest that their proposals were feasible and civic-minded. By contrast, the public change proposals written by first-year undergraduates enrolled in a first-year writing program used these topoi much less frequently. In each chapter, I explain how these proposals’ topoi appeal to their target readers’ values, thus providing insight into the ways that variation in proposals’ argument strategies aligns with features of those proposals’ rhetorical contexts.

In addition to this genre analysis contribution, this dissertation also makes a secondary pedagogical contribution that addresses the tension between explicit and non-explicit genre instruction. In Chapter 4, in addition to outlining public change topoi, I present the results of a classroom-based pilot study which assessed the impact of teaching these topoi to first-year students. While the results of this exploratory study are limited, they show that, according to evaluations by experienced instructors, first-year students who received explicit instruction in the topoi of proposing public change wrote proposals that were more feasible and civic-minded and showed greater sensitivity to audience than students who did not learn the topoi. These results, in turn, suggest that students can learn and effectively apply the public change topoi to their own proposal writing. In addition to this quasi-experimental pilot study, Chapter 4 also outlines a method for building and testing topoi-based curricula––a method which other instructors could use to analyze and teach important genres in their own disciplines.

While this dissertation’s studies are exploratory, and so the implications of their findings are limited, this research contributes to ongoing scholarly conversations about effective approaches to analyzing and teaching genres of professional writing.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • English

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Joanna Wolfe

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