Critical Collaborative Learning, Hints of LR, and the Idea of Community (Trimbur, Harris)

Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 733-747. Print.

With a goal of developing “a critical practice of collaborative learning” (743), Trimbur critiques Bruffee, putting his goals rather than his methods to task, and explores “consensus” as a problematic ideological centerpiece to collaborative learning. Trimbur argues that Bruffee’s version of collaborative learning falls short of the goals of a critical pedagogy in that it gives consensus “real world” status as a goal (i.e. in the academy, in industry, etcetera). It also romanticizes individualism in “abnormal discourse,” which supposedly has the power to distort the monolith of normal discourse; Trimbur argues that such an abnormal discourse depends on an kind of individual cognitive genius that is out of step with a constructivist view, and that it has a of a new normative discourse rather than a distorted critical discourse. That is, consensus (even when it comes from abnormal discourse) is homeostatic rather than resistance-oriented, reifying the “hierarchical relations of teaching and learning” (and of industry) rather than opening up “practices of participatory democracy” (742). If, however, consensus becomes a utopian practice, it becomes a “critical instrument” (745) that can be used to look for dissensus and difference, analyze the power relations that are legitimized by conversation, and “open gaps in the conversation through which differences may emerge” (745). The goal is neither participation in romanticized “real world” discourse, nor is it a kind of discursive relativism. Rather, it is “an openness to unassimilated otherness”; a recognition of difference wherein people “organize the conditions in which we live and work” according to justice in difference. Writing and English classes can be truly non-hierarchical, not just talking about how to read and write, but how we have been trained to read and write and how those ideas reproduce power that inhibits communication (rather than making it more clear).

Some interesting notions in here–I keep coming back to Booth, of course, and Listening Rhetoric. At what point does what Booth describes become an open, unassimilated rhetoric? Does LR aim for consensus? What is the reality (negotiated, I know, but is consensus a goal?) behind the agreements in the context of disagreements that is LR?  Booth seems to argue for an “aggressive universality” in his manifesto ( The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 172). Is this homeostatic or is it open to difference?


Harris, Joseph. “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 748-758. Print.

Harris’ pedagogical program:

“Rather, I would expect and hope for a kind of useful dissonance as students are confronted with ways of talking about the world with which they are not yet wholly familiar. What I am arguing against, thought, is the notion that our students should necessarily be working towards the mastery of some particular, well-defined sort of discourse. It seems to me that they might better be encouraged towards a kind of polyphony–an awareness of and pleasure in the various competing discourses that make up their own” (754).

In “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing,” Harris aims to “argue for a more critical look” at community as a central idea in writing studies (748), and focuses most of his energy on the notion of an academic discourse community in particular. Recent theories about community are often polarizing or lacking an element of practical description, resulting in “a view of ‘normal discourse’ in the university that is oddly lacking in conflict or change” (749). Community is often used in a warm, fuzzy manner–rich with sentiment and invoking an ideal rather than describing a tangible. The idea of community is a powerful idea, but not a “critical instrument” (Trimbur 745).

Traces the roots of this idea in “interpretive community” (a la Fish) and “speech community” (a la sociolinguistics). Interpretive community is intended to be fairly abstract, a “world-view”; while speech community is a more specific grouping like a neighborhood. “Discourse community,” however, is a term wrought with confusion. According to Harris, “academic discourse community” is sometimes a metaphor for intertextuality and sometimes a “shadowy network” of nebulous participants that aren’t really communities in the specific sense. Definitions that try to improve on this tend toward descriptions of “like-mindedness” and “sentimental views of community” (752), one which tends to pit privileged academic discourses against others (Bartholomae is the major example Harris describes), rather than understanding discourses as having messy, hazy boundaries between the often indistinct communities they define (753).

Harris takes the critique of consensus-oriented community even further than Trimbur, arguing that academic discourse is better seen as a “polyglot,” like a city wherein difference continually confronts difference. “One does not need consensus to have community” (756). Harris urges a specific, material view of community and be careful with our use of that term, reserving it for specific and local groups and using other terms (terms we already have) for social forces. This is, in a very large way, an argument for precision.


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