Parlor Crashers

By Jennifer Fletcher

Many teachers use Kenneth Burke’s famous parlor metaphor to help their students understand what it means to take a turn in an academic conversation: “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” (1941, 111). When we cite sources in academic writing, we’re the ones hosting the party at that particular moment. Burke uses this metaphor to make the point that engaging in an intellectual discussion is kind of like attending a party; we need to pay attention to what’s appropriate in this group setting.

I use Burke’s metaphor to offer students another way to think about academic integrity and fake reading. Unattributed sources or citations from anonymously authored study guides like SparkNotes are “parlor crashers”—people who shouldn’t be in the conversation. By this, I don’t mean writers with legitimate points of view that deserve to be heard. I’m talking about plagiarism and ghost writing here, neither of which has any place in academic work. The problem with both is that we have no idea who’s in the room.

There are two common types of parlor crashers: The Imposter and The Unknown Source. The Imposter is plagiarized writing that pretends to be someone it’s not. The Unknown Source is an anonymously authored source, such as SparkNotes, that students can’t engage in an academic conversation because the writer’s identity is unknown. The Unknown Source is also often the cause of another parlor foul: pushing the invited guest (the book students were supposed to read) out of the parlor. Students can’t engage a writer they haven’t read.

Plagiarism is the worst case scenario of writing that is not communication; plagiarized writing is something to turn in, not something to say. I once called an online essay writing service out of sheer dismay and amazement that this kind of cheating exists. “Why do you do this?” I asked the representative who answered the customer service number, “I’m a teacher who works hard to help my students learn. I want them to get an education, not just a degree. Why do you wrongfully deprive these students of the opportunity to learn?” The rep audibly sighed and hung up on me. When I elaborated on my concerns in a subsequent email to the same service, I received this terse response: “We take this into consideration. Thank you.” I can only wonder how many times cheating services like this one have to field complaints from teachers like me. I hope often.

Aside from the ethical harm academic dishonesty causes to students and learning communities, using someone else’s words without giving them proper credit makes no logical sense if we accept the idea of academic discourse as an ongoing conversation. From this perspective, plagiarism is a weird form of impersonation or ventriloquism. Someone in disguise has crashed the Burkian parlor; we have a voice saying something but no authentic sense of who this person is or where they come from.

In the case of plagiarized material from online sources like Shmoop or LitCharts, the voice the plagiarist has assumed may actually be that of a struggling graduate student or jaded tech writer trying to make some extra money on the side. We simply don’t know. There’s someone hiding in the room who hasn’t been introduced to the group. One anonymously authored notes guide I came across offered what I thought was an inaccurate paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 139. Now, my own interpretation could be off, but you can’t argue with a critic who won’t stand behind their words.

For this reason, I tend to discourage students from reading notes publications—not because I have a problem with students getting extra help interpreting challenging works, but because I’d like them to contextualize the other voices in the discussion. There are wonderful resources for students written by people who aren’t afraid to put their own names and credentials to their work.

In academic writing, citations are people. When students see sources as human beings to understand and respond to–and not just as something to use for an assignment–they cross the threshold between “doing school” and authentic written communication.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Work Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Philosophy of Literary Form. Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

2 thoughts on “Parlor Crashers

  1. If I were to tell you everything I love about this post I’d need to quote the entire text. Teachers need to reframe the ways they teach sources: “Citations are people.” I recently read the book “Think Again,” which hints at Burke’s parlor game and the ways we think of discourse. It occurs to me that when students use the anonymous sources you mention they’re completely ignoring the importance of ethos in rhetoric. As you say, “you can’t argue with an anonymous source.”


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