What is an academic conversation? And why should anyone care? With the increase of anti-intellectual rhetoric around the country, it is more important than ever to talk about the constructive qualities built into academic discourse. A discourse community implies the existence of undercurrent rules of engagement that support the production and exchange of knowledge. The difference at the level of scholarship is that the aim is the production and exchange of new knowledge--not ideas that everyone agrees with. What that means is at some level agreeing to be discomforted by what someone else knows or thinks.
Three weeks from my students’ final project in freshman composition, and three days from submitting their grades, I am still thinking, “What would it mean to advocate for the inclusion of more academic conversations as part of the daily ways in which we think about having difficult dialogues--in politics, with our neighbors, with our spouses.”
For their final projects, my students had to display “an academic conversation.” Here were their instructions: “To put your concerns in conversation with other budding scholars, your peers.” It was more in-depth than that, actually three pages and 927 words in length. But, it really came down to those twelve words. My aim was to help students make the connection that the papers they were writing in class were representing a larger conversation with me, their instructor, and their peers.
In their assignment prompt, I wrote, “Discourse is what the written text traces, mimics, represents.” Thus, a scholarly paper--particularly one in a journal publication--is meant to highlight what it means to enter a dialogue, most often one that has proceeded us.
Have you ever entered a party and a group of people are huddled near the food table where you are headed? As you get to the cheese platter, you overhear a conversation that you find intriguing and want to chime in. Yet, you hesitate, wonder how to begin? That feeling you got, well, it was because part of you sensed there are unspoken rules of engagement before entering a conversation already in progress.
How does a scholarly paper assist with butting into conversations you like? By asking you to cite with whom you are in conversation and putting those conversations in context. That is why college papers can be quite long--they want to treat the dialogue they present such that the background, the argument, the aims and the references are systematic enough to follow for future scholars, readers and conversations near cheese platters.
Another aspect of academic discourse that I found really helpful is: exhibiting a generosity of engagement. That was actually a criterion for my students in their “oral text” presentation, what I called the academic conversation they had to display.
Three - four students sat in chairs in a semi-circle facing the class and I who were in a semi-circle behind several desks facing them. What else did I look for? How students dovetailed from the ideas of their group members, how they built on the commentary their group made.
They had to present on their revised paper. However, with ten-minutes and three - four people in each group, the constraints were such that they couldn’t just read each of their papers (which is a totally okay way to have an academic panel or conversation given extended time). This forced them to think about how their paper’s main point could be communicated succinctly and be part of an interplay of ideas.
One group created a book of rhymes to introduce each other’s themes. In another group, a couple of participants would reference the topic of the previous person in connection to their papers. One other group extended the conversation almost immediately to the audience (although the audience had to wait until the Q&A&C to respond). The question and answer and comment (Q&A&C) time was an opportunity for the students to open to the audience.
What would politics or social media or conversations with our partners look like with more generosity of engagement? There are complications in any discourse community. Dialogue is tough. What thinking about “academic conversations” helps us do is to provide more context before launching into a diatribe about the wrongness of whomever we are discussing at the time. What scholars have to customarily do is first show that they understand the side they are presenting well-enough before critiquing or continuing a line of conversation.