When a student writes a research essay, that essay is not written for the student alone. In section 3 on the rhetorical situation, you learned that all written works have an audience and a context. Not only is there an audience and a context for a given text, but generally a text is joining an ongoing conversation about that topic as well. If, for example, someone writes about climate change, the author is stepping into a conversation about climate change that has been happening for the past fifty years and longer. Part of joining that conversation means being able to find and evaluate which voices matter for the topic and thesis of the paper, and then building upon and responding to those people.
The twentieth century rhetorician Kenneth Burke posits that there is an “unending conversation” occurring throughout history, and his illustration of this conversation is helpful in understanding how one joins a conversation of ideas:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
In this analogy, the other party-goers are the authors of primary and secondary texts that an author engages in a paper, and the person writing the research paper is the one joining the conversation. However, the student in this case has many more sources to choose from than just a few in a single conversation. There are many voices in hundreds of conversations, and it is up to you to choose which ones are most important and worth including in your argument.
- Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 110-111. ↵