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…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.
-Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form
A colleague of mine recently enlightened me on this metaphor by Kenneth Burke. Discussion is collective form, and every person has a part to play. So much happens in the brain during a good discussion. We are forced to engage without always speaking. To listen first. Synthesize the information. Run it through the files of all we’ve ever known and all we’ve ever read. Consider our stance. Consider our audience, our appropriate tone of voice. And then, we put in our oars. We are no longer observers. We are participants. And what we say matters.
In our workshop at this year’s Transitioning to College Writing Symposium, Jenny Jackson and I will share our ideas about the importance of discussion as a tool for academic writing. We will share materials we’ve used that have proven successful. And we will facilitate a discussion on how to better engage students, how to encourage them to put their oars in, and how to help them be aware of their responses so that the academic discussion is both inclusive and effective.
Amber Nichols-Buckley, Instructor of Writing & Rhetoric, University of Mississippi