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16: The Conversation Metaphor

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    Six people gathered round listening to 2 people in conversation
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Discussion at the Continental Arms, 1861. (Copyright; Frederick Willing Billing via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie Gordon)

    The process of conducting and sharing research is like a conversation—someone shares an idea, others react to it, and someone else can take the idea further. Kenneth Burke, an influential 20th-century literary theorist, used this conversation metaphor to illustrate what scholars do: 

    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 had 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. (Burke, 110-111) 

    From The Philosophy of Literary Form (1974) 

    We have probably all had a similar experience of joining a party or gathering, either in person or online. We encounter a group of knowledgeable people engaged in vibrant conversation that includes multiple perspectives. We listen in for a while, thinking through and evaluating the various points of view and positions represented in the conversation, and then decide how we can add to the conversation. If we jump into a conversation without listening first, our contribution is much less likely to be meaningful.  

    The same is true of doing and sharing research—for our own work to make sense, we must first explore the existing scholarly conversations around the topic. Exploring scholarly conversations includes understanding what the researcher’s perspective is and what makes them an expert on the topic.  

    A conversation, research-related or otherwise, can be based in alphabetic text, in images, or across multiple other media. Contributions to scholarly conversation do not have to be in the form of a research paper—they can happen in online communities, guided discussions, conference posters, video presentations, and more. 

    Understanding and “listening” to existing conversations enables us to make meaningful contributions so that new research and writing can carry the conversation forward. New insights and discoveries occur over time as a result of varied perspectives and interpretations coming into contact with one another through conversation. For some topics, it is possible to establish answers through this process, but many questions do not have a single recognized answer. When researching, it is important to seek out many perspectives, not just those that are already familiar. These perspectives might be in an expert’s own discipline or profession, but there might be additional relevant perspectives in other fields as well. 

    The overall context of the conversation provides valuable additional insight—it is important to critically evaluate others’ contributions by questioning what the researcher is responding to, noting which citations are used, and recognizing where the conversation is taking place (e.g., journal article, book chapter, interview, blog post, social media).  

    This context also affects how information is shared, evaluated, and understood. For example, a reported news piece is published quickly to report on current events. A scholarly article about the same event would be written and published much later, after it has gone through a process of peer review, where other experts on the topic have evaluated and assessed the content. Both types of information are valuable, but they serve different purposes and will likely reach different people. 

    While new scholars and experts at all levels can take part in the conversation, established power and authority structures may influence their ability to participate and can privilege certain voices and information. Historically, this has often meant that people in positions of privilege have had access to more resources and that their voices have often been louder in scholarly conversations. As new researchers, developing familiarity with the sources of evidence, methods, and modes of discourse in different fields will assist your voices to enter the ongoing conversation and to offer fresh perspectives. 

    One responsibility of participating in scholarly and research conversations is giving attribution to relevant previous research and ideas. Citing sources accurately makes it possible for the chain of conversation to move forward and provides a foundation for future participants. Scholars realize that these conversations are ongoing and will continue long after they make their own contribution. Other scholars will follow them into the conversation and may in turn cite that contribution in their own research.  


    Introducing the Conversation Metaphor 

    1. Take a few minutes to complete these prompts. Today …  

    I’m feeling curious about _____________________  

    I’m feeling passionate about __________________  

    I’m feeling angry about _______________________  

    I’m feeling frightened about ___________________  

    2. Pick two of the feelings you identified in #1 and write a sentence for each that explains why you selected it.  

    3. Pick one of the sentences you wrote in #2 that you think you could write about for 4-5 minutes. Describe the emotion (sensory detail, physical sensations) and the experience(s) that prompted this feeling.  

    4. Find a partner and spend a few minutes sharing. You could exchange your papers or simply discuss what you wrote.  

    5. After you’ve shared with a partner, as a class try to list all the qualities of a good conversation. How do we know we’re in a good conversation with someone? Next, try to list all the things that prevent or constrain a good conversation. How do you know when you’re in a bad/painful conversation? 


    Parlor Activity 

    As discussed in this chapter, we are working on understanding academic writing as a conversation. We are embracing the metaphor of “the parlor.” When you write in an academic setting for an audience of college-level thinkers, it should be like entering a parlor where thoughtful people are engaging socially. This writing assignment asks you to envision what your parlor would be like. Take some time to analyze who is in your parlor and what it looks and sounds like. Consider the physical environment. Consider the objects and media around you. Look at your bookmarked websites and social media accounts to consider who you talk to and share information with the most. What ideas and values do you have in common with the people with whom you share ideas? How are you similar? How are you different? What does your podcast or Netflix playlist say about your interests? In what way does this parlor environment represent your identity? Write a one-page narrative imagining your parlor: Who’s there and how do you know these people, artifacts, and subjects? What subjects will you likely discuss? What do the people have in common—what values do you share? 

    Student Example, Parlor Activity: “Coffee for Few,” Jey Woyner, Columbia College Chicago student  

    I envision a small but quaint space. The lights aren’t too bright, nothing is too loud, and the atmosphere is similar to that of a local town cafe (yes, coffee will always be available). I welcome you to my parlor! Actually, it isn’t much of a parlor. It’s more like a tiny apartment room. Anybody is welcome to come over, if they express the interest for it. Anybody under the condition that they are considerate towards others and respect others’ opinions. To put it simply, no jerks allowed. Most of the time, however, it’s only a few close friends that come here. Some of these friends I’ve known for years, some of them less. The worth of our relationships does not depend on how long I may have known them for, but on the connections we’ve established through deep conversations. Conversations about ourselves, life struggles, creative passions, and more. There are two distinct things that connect all of us—we are all creatives in some way and we all fall into the LGBT+ community. Despite where our differences may lie, our discussions revolving around these topics are always done with care and open minds. We usually end up offering each other our support and insights. It isn’t always as serious as it seems here, however. We could be talking sincerely one moment, and completely foolish the next. We’ve all got Twitter on our phones, and some video game consoles are set up. A discussion on gender equality, for instance, can quickly turn into a chat about the latest update for Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. We can catch all the latest news on it from our phones and have a casual talk about it while we play some rounds. We aren’t too picky here in my parlor. As long as no one feels uncomfortable and we’re all having fun, we don’t mind who joins us. We’d love to hear new thoughts from someone else. Though, it would be nice to have a bigger space if a party decides to come over! 


    Reaction Videos as Conversation 

    Spend 5 minutes watching TikToks, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, or other short-form videos on social media.  

    Please count the number of videos you watch, then answer the following questions about your viewing experience.  

    For each video, note whether it is 

    • An “Original” Video: It is not a “reaction” to another video, it is not a “recreation” of another video, it does not copy an idea or footage from someone else. 

    • A “Reaction” Video: The poster is reacting to another person’s video. 

    • A “Recreation” Video: The poster is recreating the idea or actions of another person’s original video. 


    Of the “reaction” and “recreation” videos you saw, was there a way for you to identify the original poster’s video or username? 

    What do you think about the ease/difficulty of locating the original poster’s username or video in a “reaction” or “recreation” video? 

    What do you think is good etiquette for using and reusing other people’s video content? 

    How is this short-form video use of other’s ideas and videos different from how researchers respond to one another?  

    How is it similar? Think about the different ways academics interact with each other via writings. 


     Works Cited

    Billing, Frederick Willing. Discussion at the Continental Arms. 1861. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie Gordon. Smithsonian Open Access Collection. Discussion at the Continental Arms [].  

    Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. University of California Press, 1974.

    16: The Conversation Metaphor is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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