Below you can find Professor of English Debra Hawhee’s “The Unending Conversation” speech at The Pennsylvania State University where she discusses Kenneth Burke’s famous parlor metaphor. Burke writes:
“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 her; another comes to your defense; another supports what you have to say; another disagrees. The discussion, however, is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
The parlor is a metaphor for scholarship, and scholarly conversation, and also writerly conversation. All scholars and writers come late to their own conversation. When they arrive, others have long preceded them, and nobody pauses to tell them exactly what the conversation is about. Indeed, nobody at the parlor is able to recall for them all the conversation’s questions and answers, or its twists and turns. They recognize the conversation had already begun long before any of them arrived at the parlor.
Good scholars and writers listen carefully to their conversation for a while, until they decide they’ve caught its drift. Then they “put in one’s oar.” Nobody asked for their opinion, but they became part of the conversation. They’re inspired by something or someone, or by some micro conversation inside the macro conversation. One part of research is listening carefully to the general conversation, another is listening carefully for the specific voices who inspire you, the voices who you want to think with and reply to in your work.
The following speech was delivered by Debra Hawhee, Professor of English, to the Class of 2016 at The Pennsylvania State University during the President’s New Student Convocation on August 25, 2012.
This video was developed by W. Frank Steely Library librarians at Northern Kentucky University as part of their online course on the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.
To practice thinking about what sources work well together, instead of choosing sources, students will choose who to invite to a small dinner party. The goal is to put together a group of guests that will be able to find enough common ground to have interesting conversations.