Peers, Collaboration, Discourse (Bruffee)

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 545-562. Print.

Disciplinary essential. This article describes the philosophical background for many of the ideas foundational to the peer movement in composition. Bruffee’s assessment of what scholars such as Crowley would call a “current-traditional” paradigm of the nature of thought is swift: “We ordinarily assume that thought is some sort of given, an essential attribute of the human mind.” But “it is instead an artifact created by social interaction” (549). This idea is critical for Bruffee’s explanation of the conversation–thought–writing relationship; since thought is internalized conversation (he cites Vygotsky, among others), we can understand thinking by understanding social behavior. From Kuhn, Rorty, and Fish he takes fundamental ideas about the ways knowledge is justified in and by community: “social construction of belief,” “normal discourse,” and “interpretive communities” (550). Noting that writing is “technologically displaced form of conversation” (an important but arguable point in his argument), Bruffee argues that understanding writing is a complex undertaking. Though he doesn’t treat the relationship here at length (nor does he expound much on the importance of writing being technological aside from its two-step removal from conversation), the link is important for his pedagogical theory: “the way [students] talk with each other determines the way they will think and the way they will write” (551). Student discussion and conversation is not just an area where course material is treated or “covered”–it is a place where knowledge is created and, more importantly, where the processes of knowledge-creation are practiced: using normal and abnormal discourse.

According to Bruffee, the purpose of normal discourse ”is to justify belief to the satisfaction of other people within the author’s community of knowledgeable peers” (552). It produces “the sort of statement that can be agreed to be true by all participants whom the other participants count as rational” (Rorty qtd in Bruffee 552). This is markedly similar to Elbow’s description of a “correct” reading of a text in his Believing and Doubting appendix to Writing Without Teachers: “that reading is correct which the speech community builds in or could build in without violating its rules (157). (It’s possible that Elbow has Rorty in mind, but the appendix contains few bibliographic citations.)

The burden of the teacher, then, is to set up “indirect teaching” situations and other types of collaborative learning (such as peer tutoring, the most important example in Bruffee’s argument) (547). Bruffee doesn’t provide recipes or particular suggestions for helping students have this kind of conversation, but we can extrapolate two basic principles from his discussion:

  1. First, “no student is wholly ignorant or experienced” As with Shaughnessy and Rose and so many others, an assumption change on the part of the instructor is in order.
  2. Second, students are likely to master such discourse in a conversation that is “indirectly” structured by the task or problem (553). So, the design and ingenuity of the teacher in creating situations where student knowledge and sensitivity can be brought to bear in a sitution structured by “demands” of the assignment and “formal conventions” of academic discourse and standard English. (And Bruffee does leave this up entirely to ingenuity, providing zero prescriptions. Furthermore–leaving aside the long-ranging debate over “standard English”–his notion of “academic” discourse is problematically generic.

Conversation–genuine but structured conversation–as the road to learning normal discourse is an important take-away from Bruffee, and the focal point of his essay. But creativity plays a role here as well–he very carefully includes (at least in brief) abnormal discourse (which may be anything from nonsense to the raw material of intellectual revolution) as an agent in knowledge-creation:

What we can teach are the tools of normal discourse, that is, both practical rhetoric and rhetorically based modes of literary criticism such as the taxonomy of figures, new-critical analysis, and deconstructive criticism. To leave openings for change, however, we must not teach these tools as universals. We must teach practical rhetoric and critical analysis in such a way that, when necessary, students can turn to abnormal discourse in order to undermine their own and other people’s reliance on the canonical conventions and vocabulary of normal discourse. We must teach the use of these tools in such a way that students can set them aside, if only momentarily, for the purpose of generating new knowledge, for the purpose, that is, of reconstituting knowledge communities in more satisfactory ways. (557).

Unsurprisingly, Bruffee advocates a different kind of rhetoric, a believing and listening rhetoric (Elbow, Booth):

How would practical rhetoric look if we assumed that writer and reader were not adversaries but partners in a common, community-based enterprise? How would it look if we no longer assumed that people write to persuade or to distinguish themselves and their points of view and to enhance their own individually by gaining the acquiescence of other individuals? How would it look if we assumed instead that people write for the very opposite reason: that people write in order to be accepted, to join, to be regarded as another member of the culture or community that constitutes the writer’s audience? (559)

Under such a scheme, writing instruction has no choice but to be peer-focused, a composition that necessarily involves real others in its elaboration of the world:

But if we think of learning as a social process, the process of socially justifying belief, then to teach expository writing seems to involve something else entirely. It involves demonstrating to students that they know something only when they can explain it in writing to the satisfaction of the community of their knowledgeable peers (560).

Such a composition not only pulls students into themselves, allowing them to perceive their own thinking and values, but it also pushes them to acculturate to a world-life outside of themselves. Looking out reinforces looking in.


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