Entering the Conversation
Your Role as an Intelligent Writer
In courses across the College, you will take on many tasks as a writer. You will be asked, for instance, to describe, to define, to differentiate, to characterize, to analyze, to argue, to interpret, to formulate an opinion, to record, to synthesize, and to call into question. Writing assignments will require you to perform one or another of these rhetorical operations, and you will be invited to participate in class discussion using these same skills. All of these skills support intellectual life, which involves members of academic communities (or, in the case of public writing, members of civic and professional communities) interacting with one another in order to move knowledge forward as they discuss, disagree, and strategize with one another about the best ways to address questions and issues that emerge regarding worldly phenomena.
As a Davidson student, your chief role is to enter settings where ideas, findings, and claims are discussed, recorded, and—at times—revised. Kenneth Burke, a twentieth-century scholar of Rhetoric, used the image of a conversation to characterize this ongoing exchange and each of our roles within it.
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. (Philosophy of Literary Form, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941: 110.)
This sort of arrangement, where you step in and out of ongoing conversations, lies at the heart of social life. At Davidson, the conversations take place in classrooms, in residence hallways, in Commons, in professors’ offices—anywhere that people wish to address issues, questions, and ideas together, in the company of others.
You should not forget that at Davidson we also expect you to initiate conversations, to put new ideas on the table, to invite others to speculate, doubt, and wonder along with you. Davidson offers you agency every time you choose a topic to write about, or fashion a claim that reflects your best thinking, or design an experiment, or invent a new way of seeing. Especially if you are a new student, we encourage you to read the attached documents, below. They illustrate how the intellectual conversation operates, and will give you yet another sense of your roles and responsibilities.