Friday, May 1, 2015

Burke's Parlor Metaphor, and being "People on Whom Nothing is Lost"

As my students prepare for the AP Lang & Comp exam, here are some thoughts:

Like many teachers - especially English teachers - I do far more than teach my content. So much of my class, my students like to claim, is "not about English, but about life." Some people call that character education, others may call it shameless digressions into whatever I want to talk about. Either way, there is a method - and purpose to my madness - and it was best encapsulated by two great American writers and thinkers. Henry James once wrote about the need for a writer to be "a person on whom nothing is lost." That is a mantra in my classroom - especially AP Language and Composition where the ability to write open arguments is one of the class's raison d'etre. Basically, I am looking to guide and craft well-informed and astute young men and women who think a lot about a great deal of things ... and know what they "think about what they think." This is the essence of what Kenneth Burke in his Philosophy of the Literary From described in what has become known as "the parlor metaphor."

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.

I was introduced to this via the College Board and former chief reader David Jolliffe who included the metaphor in publications for the yearly conferences. Jolliffe developed his ideas astutely in the helpful textbook Everyday Use.  The idea has been so helpful in getting my mind around AP Language because it perfectly encapsulates the Lang exam. There is, truly, a "discussion" going on in the pages in front of the students, and they must be able to "put in their oar" and then gracefully bow out. Of course, beyond the Lang exam, don't we always want our students to be well informed? Especially now, in a world saturated with content, isn't it appropriate for the education system to create "people on whom nothing is lost."

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