Writing in the Presence of Others

By Jennifer Fletcher

As a graduate student, I remember one of my advisors telling me that we’re all just adding our bricks to the wall. At the time, I couldn’t help hearing echoes of Pink Floyd, and I perhaps didn’t fully appreciate my advisor’s point about the collaborative nature of intellectual labor. After a couple decades of working as a scholar and teacher, however, I get it now. None of us does our work alone.

We’re all supported by the different communities, networks, resources, and previous research that allow us to do what we do. We’re all standing on some someone’s shoulders, following in someone’s footsteps. We’re all co-constructors of whatever it is we’re building–not a wall, but the bridges and pathways to deeper understandings that are the goal of education and scholarship.

Going Allocentric

We write in the presence of others. This is what it means to contribute to an unending conversation: the perpetual give-and-take of public discourse that philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke famously describes in The Philosophy of Literary Form. Through his “parlor metaphor,” Burke compares our entry into an academic conversation to an arrival at a social gathering, in which “others have long preceded [us]” and are already “engaged in a heated discussion” (111). (See my post on “parlor crashers” here).

We can’t make an informed contribution to the conversation if we turn our back on the people in the room. We have to patiently prepare for our turn to speak by first listening to what others have to say. In Burke’s words, we have to catch “the tenor of the argument” before we “put in [our] oar” (111). For developing writers, the shift to an allocentric perspective that includes the community of writers they’re engaging and responding to, as well as their own future readers, can be one of the best ways to enhance the authenticity and vitality of their writing.

When Writing Leaves the Room

A narrow focus on the writer’s own needs, on the other hand, often results in perfunctory prose and unconvincing arguments. I’ve learned to watch for the telltale signs of writing that has “left the room.” These include the following:

  • Dropping in irrelevant quotations
  • Not finding common ground
  • Asking a question that’s already been answered and/or is no longer timely and important
  • Disregarding the audience’s concerns and interests

Such writing is no longer in dialogue with the other people in the Burkian parlor. Keeping our writing in the room requires repeatedly imagining our readers looking over our shoulder and our sources standing by to factcheck us if we misrepresent them.

In real academic conversations, for instance, we have to be prepared to have our readers not only agree or disagree with our claims but also with the claims of our sources. Readers who take what we say seriously won’t just view our citations as mere formalities. They’ll genuinely care about what everyone has to say. And they won’t let us get away with using quotations and references as just scholarly window dressing.

Returning to the “Parlor”

For those moments when a writer gets stuck composing or revising, I find there’s nothing better than reading to get the ideas flowing again. Sometime overly cramped and painful prose itself can be a sign of writing that’s “left the room.” Academic writing tends to stall and fall flat when it’s no longer engaged in a lively discussion.

Just as we coach students to listen for the voices and watch for the pictures as a way of monitoring their reading comprehension (see I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani), we also need to help students monitor when they no longer care about what they’re writing. If they find they’re just going through the motions, they can return to their reading to find something that moves them, that calls for a genuine response. Sometimes we do our best writing when we have a chip on our shoulder or a hero to cheer for.

Returning to the parlor for another listening session can help students discover an exigence, or reason for writing. Rhetorician M. Jimmie Killingsworth describes exigence as “what prompts the author to write in the first place, a sense of urgency, a problem that requires attention” (2005).

By cultivating their awareness of when they get stuck in their own heads, we help students develop a habit of returning to their reading to see what other writers are saying…and, in doing so, discover their own purpose for taking rhetorical action. That extra round of listening can also help students situate their developing position in relation to their sources.

Building on Others’ Contributions

As students develop a more nuanced understanding of the conversation and community they’re joining, we can extend their thinking through questions about the work that has already been done, or what my graduate advisor called the “wall”:

  • In whose footsteps are you following?
  • What’s already been done to address the issue?
  • What’s the big picture/larger context for your work?
  • How will you build on others’ contributions?

Thinking about how our individual “brick” fits into the “wall” we’re all building together gives us a deeper understanding of our rhetorical situation. This full consideration of rhetorical context moves students beyond just using the words of other writers to sincerely acknowledging their sources’ contributions to our collective knowledge.

A Lesson on Source-Based Writing from Walt Whitman

Consciously writing in the presence of others–whether that presence be the work of living colleagues or a long shadow cast by luminaries from the past–centers the social and historical contexts for intellectual labor. In the following stanza from “Starting from Paumanok” by Walt Whitman, notice how the good gray poet tells his precursors he “dare[s] not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left.” Whitman describes how he studies his predecessors’ work “intently a long while” and acknowledges “it is admirable” before developing his own position.

From "Starting from Paumanok"

Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
Language-shapers on other shores,
Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left
     wafted hither,
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more
     than it deserves,
Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
I stand in my place with my own day here” (13)

Earlier in the poem Whitman invites his own “interminable audience” to take his words and “make welcome for them everywhere” (13). He then addresses the other writers and thinkers whose work he has so carefully studied, saying, “And you precedents, connect lovingly with them [i.e., my poems], for they connect lovingly with you” (13). Seldom is the cooperative and interdependent nature of writing acknowledged with such affection and gratitude.

Whitman’s version of “they say, I say” (see Graff and Birkenstein) is one of the most arresting I’ve encountered. The turn from his thoughtful recognition of his intellectual antecedents to his utter refusal to conform to their way of thinking is masterful. The concluding lines of the stanza are the poet’s declaration of independence–a declaration that depends on its connections to others for its force and clarity.

A Reciprocal Process

The ideas of the interminable discussion and the parlor invoke a kind of collegiality, and even companionship, that I find deeply reassuring. We do our work as writers and thinkers through the help of others–even if we ultimately disagreed with them. The reciprocal exchange feeds everyone’s best work.

When we write with these understanding in mind, we can say with Whitman: “I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,/ Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.” (13)

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. Her new book Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Works Cited

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

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Appeals in Modern Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say. W.W. Norton, 2021.

Tovani, Cris. I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Stenhouse, 1999.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855-1892. Bantam, 1983.

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