Writing as Conversation
Writing does not happen in a vacuum but within a specific context and time. The process of writing can be better understood if it is viewed as a conversation between writer and reader within a specific context and time, rather than a static text. As a college student, you are expected to engage with, and join, the conversations about myriad topics --not only with classmates, but also writers who are experts in their fields. Imagine you are entering a room buzzing with different conversations...you choose to enter one of the conversations. Most of you have learned the required etiquette needed to not only join the conversation politely, but also to add something of value. Joining the world of written conversations is not much different and has its own set of etiquette and rules.
In this course, you will learn all about engaging with written texts. As someone who has graduated from high school, you have already learned how to write cohesive paragraphs and short essays. This course will teach you to engage critically with texts written by experts, by adding your written opinions. You will need to hone your research skills to actively seek out the latest conversations in specific subjects, and fine-tune your methods of presentation to join in the discussion.
Writing as a Conversation That Changes Over Time
Michael Charlton, Professor at Missouri Western State University, writes in his essay, "Understanding How Conversations Change Over Time" that we are surrounded by conversations with which we engage meaningfully. The following excerpt is adapted from his essay:
Writers make their claims in the real world where people with other opinions, values, beliefs, and experiences live. To make a claim is to enter into a conversation with these people. The rhetorician, Kenneth Burke, once famously described this as a parlor or party to which you have come late to find out that people are already in heated discussions about a topic. After you see who is part of the conversation and hear what they are saying, you begin to feel comfortable enough to offer your own take on the subject.
For example, you arrive somewhere to meet two friends and discover that they are discussing where to go to dinner or which movie to see. Each friend presents his or her argument, setting out evidence for why this restaurant or movie is a good choice, and each friend pokes holes in the other person’s argument, pointing out why he or she would not enjoy that restaurant or movie. You are expected to take a role in this discussion. Maybe you take a stand with one friend over the other, or maybe you try to reach a compromise and propose a third restaurant or movie that everyone could accept. This can lead to even further discussion.
This discussion between three friends is somewhat like Burke’s idea of the parlor, but there are differences. Eventually the conversation between the three friends will reach an end: they will go to dinner or a movie, perhaps, or they will all go home. Everyone entered into the conversation, made his or her claims, responded to other people, and went on with their lives. Burke, however, was talking about the conversations and arguments that take place in the larger culture and the world as a whole. In his metaphor, the conversation never truly ends. A writer enters into it at a particular place and time and tries to react to everything that has come before. He or she may even be influential in changing the direction or tone of the conversation by looking at it from a new angle or focusing on a different aspect of it; for example, maybe the three friends need to consider whether there is a certain type of food or movie one of them dislikes or maybe the three friends need to consider a different activity.
For most complex social issues, the conversation never truly ends.
It may, however, change over time.
For most complex social issues, the conversation never truly ends. It may, however, change over time. This can happen for many reasons. Social values may change in the larger culture, such as the growing focus on children’s welfare that led to an increase in child labor laws and child protective services in the early twentieth century. It may be the impact of large historical events, such as the impact the 9/11 attacks had on public perceptions of airport safety and screening procedures. Or maybe new scientific or other sorts of data raise concerns, such as the shifting dialog over climate change and global warming. It may even be that new groups of people enter the conversation, such as the increased prominence in recent years, of advocates for equality regardless of sexual orientation.
One widely discussed social trend that continues to inform American and global discourse is the increasing prominence of women in the workplace during and after the Second World War. At that time, this was a controversial development for many people, who felt that women were leaving traditional gender roles and the home in order to pursue work conventionally identified with men. (Although, as some historians have noted, women have always played an important role in businesses from agriculture to manufacturing, and so this conversation is far older than the mid-twentieth century.)
Most viewers watching an educational film made in 1959 entitled The Trouble with Women (see video links at the bottom of the page) find its depiction of female workers to be so incredibly dated that it is almost comical. Changes in social values have rendered the film’s discussion between two men about female employees ridiculous. Both the “con” side (with his insistence that female workers are inherently inferior) and the “pro” side (with his argument that what he calls “gals” or “girls” can be just as good) have no mainstream place in contemporary discussions of gender in the workplace. The entire question up for discussion (can women fit into the workplace?) is one that has been answered by fifty years of history in which women have fully integrated into the American workplace, and social values around gender issues and equality have changed.
However, this does not mean that the conversation has ended. Rather, the conversation about whether women should be allowed in the workplace has morphed into a discussion of how all genders are treated in the workplace. Contemporary discussions are more likely to focus on income disparity; the balance between family life, childcare, and the workplace; why certain professions are still dominated by one gender; sexual harassment; etc. Among other factors, the increased prominence of women and the rise in social movements, such as second wave feminism, gave women a greater voice in the public sphere and a greater ability to steer the conversation.
Conversations do not change overnight. A speech made by Ford about women's rights and women in the workplace in 1975, would be very different from a speech made by Google to promote the role women play in leadership positions in the company. What changes in the conversation do you think might have taken place between the educational film and speech in 1975? What changes in the conversation take place between Ford’s speech and what is essentially a public relations commercial for Google? What might it say about the current conversation around women in the workplace that Google felt it necessary to create this video? How has the presentation of female professionals changed from 1959 to this 2011 spot? Why might Google be less interested in contemporary issues like income disparity?
Writing to Become Part of a Community and Conversation
The video below discusses every day and academic writing in the context of establishing networks, or conversations with other people carrying on a conversation. It also discusses how academic writing is different from other types of writing. Ultimately, all writing seeks to establish and maintain networks, though these will differ in your personal/social and academic worlds.
Contributors and Attributions
- Essays as Conversation. Revision and adaptation of the page Writing Commons: Michael Charlton's Understanding How Conversations Change Over Time . Authored by: Susan Oaks. Provided by: Empire State College, SUNY OER Services. Project: College Writing. License: CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial