Tough Room

Last week’s This American Life on Tough Rooms has been lingering in the back of my mind since I heard it—again, as a podcast to make time pass on the elliptical. The first segment on headline-invention meetings at The Onion struck me at the time as a fantastic clip for orienting the ENGL121 students I will have in the spring to the idea of entering the conversation. As usual, I’m mildly conflicted (and I have the luxury of time before this conflict must be resolved): it’s a bit more agonistic than irenic, but I am still thinking about its possibilities for framing how some of our in-class discussions could go. The idea of tough rooms could also be a useful counterpart to echo chambers. Could the two be joined to suggest a spectrum that has different consequences on either extreme—too much believing or too much doubting?

I’ve also been thinking about a sequence in ENGL121 that would adopt in turn composing logics associated with Grammar A (conventions; writing mythos; “Inventing the University”), Grammar B (Winston Weathers; crots), and Grammar <a> (Rice; networks; hypertext). I don’t know yet how I would position the three in relation, but I can faintly imagine a promising sequence that would help us gain traction on their differences, their respective strengths and limitations, etc.


  1. I loved that This American Life, and I’ve been thinking non-stop about the way The Onion dissected the potential headlines. They had an uncanny ability to give specific and critical commentary and what made a sentence, or idea, funny or unfunny. To me the whole piece functions really well in the context of a) critical feedback to one’s peers and b) how it is important to write without the critical voice in mind. There’s a line by Ira Glass where he discussed one of the more veteran writers, who having written thousands of headlines, was still unsure of what was funny and what was not. I found the whole piece to really be a lesson in the nature of writing, and what writing looks like at a professional level.

  2. I like the segment for how it might frame quality interactions and resulting disagreements. The team of writers has a great deal of respect for one another. They trust each other’s earnest impressions. This isn’t to say that all the only useful conversations about writing work in the same way the Onion writers do, but there is something vivid in hearing it play out. It suggested a level of interaction worth sharing, worth relaying as instructionally rich (thinking in terms of horizontal learning among peers).

    By the way, we’re due for a lunch soon, yeah?

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