Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’”College English 46.7 (Nov. 1984): 635-652. (18 pages)

Bruffee considers collaborative learning and what educators can expect from embracing this concept when theorizing writing, knowledge, and writing pedagogy. Historically, Bruffee positions the lens of collaborative learning as a reaction to perceived “socially destructive authoritarian social forms” in education during the Vietnam Era. But more, he also points to the determent of traditional classroom teaching for some students: he specifically references peer tutoring as a collaborative alternative to traditional classroom teaching. At least in these early applications of collaborative learning, the transition toward such learning changed the social context in which students learned.

Bruffee draws a line from collaborative learning to the metaphor (or maybe literal practice) of conversation. He applies conversation in a few ways: first, conversation among peers constitutes communities; reflective thought also functions as an internal conversation; and writing functions as a re-externalized internal conversation. He focuses a lot of attention on the idea that thought is internalized conversation; specifically, “thought…is an artifact created by social interactions” (640). In this way, communities of people (or, as Fish labels it, interpretative communities) are sources of mental operations: “…our thought, its power, the practical and conceptual uses we can put it to, and the very issues we can address result in large measure directly from the degree to which we have initiated into …the potential ‘skill and partnership’ of human conversation in its public and social form” (640). Bruffee also cites Kuhn to also reinforce how knowledge—even scientific knowledge—does not change as our understandings of the world changes, but rather “as scientists organize and reorganize relations among themselves” (640). In this way, to understand any knowledge, we must understand “the social justification of belief”: how is knowledge established and maintained in the “normal discourse” of communities of knowledgeable peers? A community of knowledgeable peers are those who “accept, and whose work is guided by, the same paradigms and the same code of values and assumptions—normal discourse is the conversation among knowledgeable peers.

The writing classroom, then, should be designed for students to be able to understand the normal discourses of the communities valued by the university (or workplace, etc). Collaborative learning provides the social context for such learning to happen because collaborative learning is the social context of how knowledge is maintained in communities of knowledgeable peers. In the writing classroom, writing is a social artifact that is always functioning within a social context. Although students may not be initiated into the normal discourse of particular university communities (i.e. the blind leading the blind), students participation in other communities could become the basis to understand how other communities work. Bruffee, then, turns his attention to invention in this concept of writing. Creativity is bred through the negotiation of abnormal discourse where discourses of different kinds collide either internally when consensus no longer exists or between coherent communities (648).



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