Imitatio ain’t Suicide: Structural Iterating on “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’”

The following is something you’ll likely find familiar: the opening section of Bruffee’s oft-cited 1984 College English article, quoted at length and for the sake of what’s to come next.

“There are some signs these days that collaborative learning is of increasing interest to English teachers. Composition teachers seem to be exploring the concept actively. Two years ago the term appeared for the first time in the list of topics suggested by the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication for discussion at the CCCC annual convention. It was eighth or ninth on a list of ten items. Last year it appeared again, first on the list.

“Teachers of literature have also begun to talk about collaborative learning, although not always by that name. It is viewed as a way of engaging students more deeply with the text and also as an aspect of professors’ engagement with the professional community. At its 1978 convention the Modern Language Association scheduled a multi-session forum entitled “Presence, Knowledge, and Authority in the Teaching of Literature.” One of the associated sessions, called “Negotiations of Literary Knowledge,” included a discussion of the authority and structure (including the collaborative classroom structure) of “interpretive communities.” At the 1983 MLA convention collaborative practices in reestablishing authority and value in literary studies were examined under such rubrics as “Talking to the Academic Community: Conferences as Institutions” and “How Books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost Got to be Valuable” (changes in interpretive attitudes in the community of Miltonists).

“In both of these contexts collaborative learning is discussed sometimes as a process that constitutes fields or disciplines of study and sometimes as a pedagogical tool that “works” in teaching composition and literature. The former discussion, often highly theoretical, usually manages to keep at bay the more troublesome and problematic aspects of collaborative learning. The discussion of classroom practice is less fortunate. What emerges there is that many teachers are unsure about hwo to use collaborative learning and about when and where, appropriately, it should be used. Many are concerned also that when they try to use collaborative learning in what seem to be effective and appropriate ways, it sometimes quite simply fails.

“I sympathize with these experiences. Much the same thing has happened to me. Sometimes collaborative learning works beyond my highest expectations. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Recently, though, I think I have been more successful. The reason for that increased success seems to be thatI know a little more than I did in the past about the complex ideas that lie behind collaborative learning. This essay is frankly an attempt to encourage other teachers to try collaborative learning and to help them use collaborative learning appropriately and effectively. But it offers no recipes. It is written instead on the assumption that understanding both the history and the complex ideas that underlie collaborative learning can improve its practice and demonstrate its educational value.

—-

The paragraphs that follow are a partial imitatio of Bruffee’s text. This is a sort of generative modeling; an activity that helps writers work around a still-squirmy idea by forcing it into someone else’s box. I won’t use this box itself in the end, but I think it is massively helpful for thinking through a problem. Structure is framework for problem-solving. What will one part of what I want to do as I construct the dissertation research—my analysis of the “story of tech in composition journals” and “story of tech in composition in conferences”–look like?

Today, I’ll call  what I’ve written “Digital Writing and Squirming in Composition.” I’ll put transformations/revisions in BLUE and text or research that is ‘to be generated’ in RED.

There are some signs these days that digital writing* is of increasing interest to English teachers. Composition teachers seem to be exploring the concept actively. (Research this number?) years ago the term appeared for the first time in (significant disciplinary site, related to CCCC) for discussion at the CCCC annual convention. It was (research original position and describe relative importance). Last year it appeared again, (assess change).

Composition teachers have talked a lot about digital writing in disciplinary and institutional settings, although not always by that name. It is viewed as a (research and summarize view A). At its (research early date of interest) convention the CCCC scheduled (descriptor) forum entitled “(research session title)” One of the associated sessions, called “(research session title)” included a discussion of (comparative concept to or early iteration of ‘digital writing’).  At the (five years later) CCCC digital writing and technologized composition were examined under such rubrics as “(research titles)” and “(research titles).

In both of these contexts digital writing is discussed sometimes as (idea A, theoretical idea?) and sometimes as (idea B, practical idea? Ware preprogrammed dichotomies, and attend to what emerges from corpus). The former discussion, (summarize/problematize discussion of idea A). The (discussion of idea B) is (descriptor). What emerges there is that (summarize/problematize discussion of idea B). (Include other “discussions” or themes from journal/proceedings content analysis as necessary.)

I sympathize with these experiences. Much the same thing has happened to me. Sometimes digital writing works beyond my highest expectations. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Recently, though, I think I have been more successful. The reason for that increased success seems to be thatI know a little more than I did in the past about the complex ideas that lie behind digital writing.**  But this essay offers no recipes. It is written instead on the assumption that understanding both the history and the complex ideas that underlie digital writing can improve its practice and demonstrate its educational value—dare I say its necessity as a way of thinking about composition and rhetoric in the 21st century.

I have a healthy interest in modeling for structure–both in my own writing and in my teaching, and this activity definitely feeds that.This generative modeling suggests lots of things to research, ways to frame them, and rationale for method offered here, but it’s offered implicitly, through structure and rhetoric rather than content. As an experiment, a form of imitative play, it seems to be useful in thinking through gaps or absences in material (here material that hasn’t even been properly discovered yet) and ways of structuring material. It helps decipher what’s to be looked at, a mode of looking, and a method of structuring the material that’s found. I can also see how this sort of pedaling would easily become wasteful, a kind of treading water when backstrokes are really what’s needed to get somewhere.

*This is just my current but not necessarily final iteration of the term I’m using for my construct of interest.

 **The opening sentences to this paragraph, as I’ve transformed them here, are sidereal to my own intent, which is rhetorical rather than pedagogical, and thus not strictly necessary. But worth transforming anyhow.

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