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205.1 Parlor Inventory

"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" (110-111). Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

The Assignment
In Burke's famous parlor scene (above), "you" are positioned as a newcomer, a "late" arrival who enters into a lively and "heated" conversation. The sketch suggests that everyone is talking to each other, that there is more or less mutual interest and shared attention, even though the "discussion is interminable"--without end. At the outset, this assignment asks you to layer Burke's parlor and the discussion Steven Johnson initiates Everything Bad Is Good For You. That is, as you make your way through Johnson's arguments, thereby joining a conversation already in-progress, how do you respond to specific stances, arguments, and positions, either articulated by Johnson himself or represented by the sources he involves in his discussion? Where, and in what manner, in other words, do you "put in your oar"?

It is no accident that this last question refers to distinctive dimensions of your being there: location and manner (or attitude). To be successful, your writing will rely on a high degree of specificity as you locate key passages, sentences, and words in Johnson's book to develop your account. It might help, in fact, to think of this project as developing an account of your reading of Johnson; however, rather than grappling with Johnson's overarching premise and referring generally to his work, you should pin your reading to specific, identifiable points in the text. Additionally, you should account for manners and attitudes reflected in Johnson's writing (as well as his sources) and also account for your own manner or attitude as one who is entering this conversation (i.e., this parlor). Do you enter quietly and listen with a believing ear? Do you nod in agreement, pretending to understand, even while more genuinely interested in something else (thinking, perhaps, how can I make a hasty exit from this "parlor"?)? Do you shout above the noise, projecting roughshod with increasing volume rather than listening to those whose discussion you walked in on? In what manner (skeptical, believing, angry, bored, enthusiastic, etc.) do you enter the conversation? What is your attitude in making this entrance? And where do such things as manner and attitude come from? What grounds them?

This is an essay that will analyze and take stock of the text; it is an inventory of the "popular culture" parlor convened through Johnson's book, and so it basically asks you to make sense of what is happening (in exact locations, where Johnson relates sources) and what your own relationship is to it. Certain strands of analysis will take shape in our discussion forum in the weeks ahead, but you should also keep notes as you read Everything Bad Is Good For You, marking passages that seem to you to be interesting, candid, memorable, confusing, striking, or whatever, as you read. Your jottings as you read will serve you greatly as you start working in earnest on this first project in WRT205.

To frame your analysis of selected portions of Everything Bad (moments where Johnson works with sources), you should refer to Ch. 4, "Reading Critically," in Blakesley and Hoogeveen's The Brief Thomson Handbook. Their points about active, critical, and rhetorical reading will help you think about your own responses to Johnson. In particular you should demonstrate a grasp of the rhetorical concepts of ethos, logos, pathos, purpose, and context (55), and incorporate this vocabulary in your account of the parlor, your entrance into it, and the discussions unfolding in your midst.

Remember to focus on moments in the text where Johnson's commentary is combined with source use, where he identifies a source, frames it, discusses it (or uses it to discuss for him), and perhaps also quotes directly from it (or else works with it by way of paraphrase or summary). To deepen your sense of how Johnson works with the source--how selective he is, what he leaves out, and so on--it will in almost all cases be helpful to turn to track down the source and read more deeply into it. You asked to work with at least two sources (Johnson and one other) as you develop this project.

Assignment Details
Essay length: >1,500 words. The essay is due on Friday, February 6, before 3 p.m. EST. Turn in your essay by creating a file in Google Docs, saving the essay there, and inviting me (dmueller@syr.edu) as a collaborator who can read and comment upon your work. Use MLA citation within the body of your essay and on a Works Cited page, and include a thoughtful title for your essay.

WC Incentive
Include evidence of an hour-long consulting session at the Writing Center in your Invention Portfolio to earn extra credit valued at one grading increment (i.e., a 'B' becomes a 'B+', a 'C-' becomes a 'C', and so on).

Evaluation Criteria

[1] Did the writer focus the essay effectively, with a clear, thoughtful claim accounting for selected rhetorical dimensions of Everything Bad Is Good For You? Did the writer organize the essay effectively, developing logical transitions between ideas and sections?
[2] Did the writer work closely with Johnson and at least one other source, quoting and summarizing where appropriate and necessary, interpreting material and/or offering it as evidence?
[3] Did the writer compose beginning and ending paragraphs that work as a frame for the rest of the essay?
[4] Did the writer provide details, not generalizations, and new ideas, not clichés?
[5] Did the writer provide a title that provocatively and productively focused the reader’s attention?
[6] Did the writer edit for grammar, style, and usage effectively?
[7] Did the writer cite texts appropriately and properly using MLA citation format?

Contact Information

Derek Mueller
Office: HBC 002
Spring '09 office hours: Mon., 9-10 a.m.
Phone: (315) 708-3940


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