Purdue University Graduate School
Murphy Dissertation_07142022-Revised.pdf (7.76 MB)

Doctoral Examinations as Curricular Infrastructure: An Institutional Ethnography

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posted on 2022-07-15, 14:29 authored by Ryan Michael MurphyRyan Michael Murphy


Widely recognized as bridging graduate coursework and independent research, doctoral examinations also (re)-produce disciplinary norms and map trajectories for graduate student professionalization. This institutional ethnography investigates doctoral exam processes as a component of curricular infrastructure, a term that I describe in functional, relational, temporal, and heuristic terms. This study begins with a discipline-wide survey (Chapter 3) reaching 81 PhD programs in Rhetoric and Composition, building on previous programmatic research in the field to identify constellations of exam formats and their stated purposes. From this broad view, institutional ethnography re-orients analysis by focusing on the standpoints of individual stakeholders (graduate students and faculty) and the ways that work processes point toward broader structural tendencies and assumptions.  From the survey, individual perspectives through interviews with faculty at nine different universities (Chapter 4) and a large focus group with graduate students (Chapter 5) to identify work practices and the institutional and disciplinary factors that direct them. This project yields an empirically grounded description of current graduate pedagogical practices, and through those practices, describes several contours of curricular infrastructure. Temporal boundary objects describe how the meaning and significance of an experience like a doctoral exam can change across time, yielding insight into how curricular practices transfer from one intuition to another. Institutional inertia appears as common iteration of curricular infrastructure, representing the tendency of intuitions to self-replicate and resist change, and nonverbal visually embodied actions serve as a key to understanding communication about institutions that avoids talking about institutions. The project culminates in Chapter 6 with a three-part heuristic, described as an aspect of curricular infrastructure, designed as a resource to faculty and administrators who are in decision-making positions with respect to doctoral exams.  


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Michael J. Salvo

Additional Committee Member 2

Jennifer Bay

Additional Committee Member 3

Thomas Rickert

Additional Committee Member 4

Irwin Weiser

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