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You have caught the tenor of the argument

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. …  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. (Burke 110-11)

This is Kenneth Burke’s analogy for academic writing, my own version of which I use in most of my classes. Composition instructors like the authors of They Say / I Say focus on the phrase “then you put in your oar” as the turning point (13-14). For me and my profession, the key phrase is “you have caught the tenor of the argument.” Embedded there I see so much about information literacy — what people are talking about, what positions have been covered already, what evidence counts as good evidence in this conversation, what terms will this group use and understand when talking about the topic, whom will you need to acknowledge as you lay out your position… You have caught the tenor of the argument.

Another thing I love about this conversational analogy is that the protagonist is never quite done listening to others and incorporating their ideas into new statements. The research process is not linear.

(Er, I’ve finished the prefaces and introduction to this book now. I promise not to write a blog post for every 5 pages of reading. Really.)

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Second Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Published inIn My ClassroomMarginaliaTeaching and Learning


  1. The quote at the top of this post, combined with what you’ve been writing about scholarship being a conversation, just jogged something loose in my head, and now I think I may have a metaphor for explaining the difference between a lit review and an annotated bibliography to students.

    A lit review is like this: you’re facilitating a meeting with a bunch of folks who are brainstorming solutions to a problem. After everyone has talked for a while, you say, “okay, here’s what I’m hearing: you three over here are all talking about the same problem, but you’re proposing different solutions to it. You two over there don’t see this group’s problem as a problem, per se, but the ideas you’re suggesting are very similar to theirs. And you three over in this corner are talking about something completely different, but it’s still related to the problem that the first group is talking about.”

    An annotated bibliography is like this: “She said this, and she said that, and he said this, and this other person said that.”

  2. Pete Pete

    I use the Burke quotation with my Freshman Studies students every year and it really seems to make sense to them: “Wait — writing is like being at a party? Dude!”

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