What is the Burkean Parlor?

Mature businesswoman interviewing candidate at boardroom table
"As the candidate, you want to imagine the interview as a Burkean parlor.". Sofie Delauw / Getty Images

The Burkean parlor is a  metaphor introduced by philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) for "the 'unending conversation' that is going on at the point in history when we are born" (see below).

Many writing centers employ the metaphor of the Burkean parlor to characterize collaborative efforts to help students not only improve their writing and but also view their work in terms of a larger conversation.

In an influential article in The Writing Center Journal (1991), Andrea Lunsford argued that writing centers modeled on the Burkean parlor pose "a threat as well as a challenge to the status quo in higher education," and she encouraged writing center directors to embrace that challenge.

"The Burkean Parlor" is also the name of a discussion section in the print journal Rhetoric Review.

Burke's Metaphor for the "Unending Conversation"

  • "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."
    (Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 3rd ed. 1941. Univ. of California Press, 1973)

    Peter Elbow's "Yogurt Model" for a Reimagined Composition Course

    • "A course would no longer be a voyage where everyone starts out on a ship together and arrives at port at the same time; not a voyage where everyone starts the first day with no sea legs and everyone is trying simultaneously to become acculturated to the waves. It would be more like the Burkean parlor--or a writing center or studio--where people come together in groups and work together. Some have already been there a long time working and talking together when new ones arrive. New ones learn from playing the game with the more experienced players. Some leave before others. . . .

      "A competence-based, yogurt structure creates more incentive for students to invest themselves and provide their own steam for learning--learning from their own efforts and from feedback from teachers and peers. For the sooner they learn, the sooner they are to get credit and leave. . . .

      "Given this structure, I suspect that a significant fraction of skilled students will in fact stay for longer than they have to when they see they are learning things that will help them with other courses--and see that they enjoy it. It will often be their smallest and most human class, the only one with a sense of community like a Burkean parlor."
      (Peter Elbow, Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000)

      Kairos and the Rhetorical Place

      • "[W]ithin a rhetorical place, kairos is not simply a matter of rhetorical perception or willing agency: it cannot be seen apart from the physical dimensions of the place providing for it. In addition, a rhetorical place is not just a matter of location or address: it must contain some kairotic narrative in media res, from which discourse or rhetorical action can emerge. Understood as such, the rhetorical place represents a place-bound temporal room which might precede our entering, might continue past our exiting, into which we might even stumble unaware: imagine a true Burkean parlor--physically--and you will have imagined one example of a rhetorical place as I have tried to construct it."
        (Jerry Blitefield, "Kairos and the Rhetorical Place." Professing Rhetoric: Selected Papers From the 2000 Rhetoric Society of America Conference, ed. by Frederick J. Antczak, Cinda Coggins, and Geoffrey D. Klinger. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002)

      The Faculty Job Interview as the Burkean Parlor

      • "As the candidate, you want to imagine the interview as a Burkean parlor. In other words, you want to approach the interview as a conversation in which you and the interviewers create a collaborative understanding of the professional relationship that might result from the interview. You want to walk in prepared to have a smart conversation, not prepared to give a thesis defense."
        (Dawn Marie Formo and Cheryl Reed, Job Search in Academe: Strategic Rhetorics for Faculty Job Candidates. Stylus, 1999)