Kairos 17.3


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. (Kenneth Burke, 1973, pp. 110-111)

Burke’s conversation metaphor represents what the Writing Hub aims to achieve across its curriculum and extra-curricular support programs. With conversation central to every class and drop-in tutoring session, students can see for themselves that arguments are fluid and dynamic—and ultimately multimodal, as it is not uncommon for these interactions to include (simultaneously) cell phones, laptops, tablets, books, pens and paper, and other people.

Above all, the conversation approach dispels the notion of a “correct” way to write—particularly across cultures—and in some cases, a false dichotomy between novice and expert. This demonstrates to students through firsthand experience that it is far more important to be able to adapt arguments for changing contexts and audiences, to find their place in the conversation.

Our emphasis on conversation originated through the combined influences of rhetoric (dialectic) and sociolinguistics (cross-cultural communication) in the original pair of WRIT courses. As a result, a cross-cultural or global emphasis now informs our curriculum in all WRIT courses. While collaborative assignments and discussion boards are mainstays across our teaching, we also encourage conversations beyond the classroom through our participation in Stanford University’s Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Program, in which students from around the world meet in virtual classrooms to collaborate on cross-cultural assignments. As an icebreaker, each student presents and discusses a cultural artifact, such as a cartoon, newspaper headline, food item, or object that symbolizes their culture—national, political, religious, or otherwise. Conversations flow freely, interspersed with laughter, gesticulation, and even applause. Before long, students have discovered something to think about, argue about, and ultimately write about. They have also developed a rapport with the other students and feel less apprehensive about peer review.