This dissertation asks: What are the material conditions of basic writing students? What literacy knowledge do they bring to the basic writing classroom? And how do these conditions and knowledge shape their success (or lack thereof) in the writing classroom? To answer these questions, this study employs three sets of data : (1) a semester-long critical ethnographic observation of a basic writing course in order to get at students’ experiences in the classroom, (2) literacy history interviews with nine focal students in order to investigate students’ literate and material lives, and (3) follow-up interviews with these students over the course the following four semesters to explore how students continue to balance their literacy learning, material realities, and educational goals.

I analyze these data using constructivist grounded theory, which develops theories drawn directly from the data, while acknowledging the researcher’s active role in data interpretation (Charmaz, 2006). Having formal academic training in grounded theory analysis, I understand that this mode of analysis is especially appropriate both to this study’s research questions and data collection methods. Rather than testing a pre-existing hypothesis, grounded theory is best used as a tool for describing phenomena, such as—in the case of this study—the success or failure of basic writing students. Likewise, this analytical method is particularly suited to the open-ended data collection methods employed by this study, such as ethnographic observation and semi-structured interviews (Turner, 1983). Finally, grounded theory data analysis is especially attuned to recognizing the role of the same broader contextual issues such as poverty and language politics which led me to choose critical ethnography as a data collection method (Orlikowski, 1993; Turner, 1983).