“Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning,” by John Trimbur
|Professor John Trimbur|
In this canonical essay, John Trimbur builds upon Kenneth Bruffee’s scholarly work on consensus-based pedagogy by differentiating his approach to collaborative learning as one which hopes to foster radical outcomes and the pursuit of utopia, while he conversely situates Bruffee and other social constructivists as tending to preserve the status quo of social and economic production. Trimbur likewise breaks from Bruffee in his view of the functional nature of consensus processes. Rather than asking to students to use consensus to find collective agreements, which is a method easily pressed into service for the aims of corporate capitalism, (472) Trimbur sees value in consensus process in the way that it can lead to “collective explanations of how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can work and live together with these differences” (470). In other words, Trimbur wants students to recognize different subject positions and ask how those subject positions might complicate seemingly easy solutions. He wants students to use consensus in this way so that it will illuminate the basis and nature of power systems under examination. With this “rehabilitated notion of consensus in collaborative learning,” Trimbur hopes his pedagogical techniques will “provide students with exemplary motives to imagine alternate worlds and transformations of social life and labor” (477).
In situating this essay historically, one must acknowledge the profound effects of social movements beginning in the second half of the 1960’s. The impetus for Bruffee’s initial work on consensus learning stems from these impulses to question standard social and pedagogical practice and to extend democracy to social and economic spheres of life. By the time Trimbur publishes his essay in 1989, there had been a reassertion of establishment (one might say reactionary) values in the broader society and in academic literature in composition and rhetoric. Trimbur does not mention David Bartholomae and his often cited essay, “Inventing the University” by name, but there are moments when “Consensus and Difference” seems to respond to the pedagogical ethic Bartholomae proposed four years earlier. Trimbur writes:
“’This,’ we tell students, ‘is the way we [English teachers, biologists, lawyers, chemical engineers, social workers, whatever] do things around here. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s just the way we talk to each other.’ The problem is that invoking ‘real world’ authority of such consensual practices neutralizes the critical and transformative project of collaborative learning, depoliticizes it, and reduces it to an acculturative technique” (472 – 473).
Here, Trimbur seems to part ways with Bartholomae and other social constructivists arguing that training students for a continuation of conventions within a certain discourse community does nothing to question or change power relations. In the context of composition and rhetoric scholarship, Trimbur thus positions himself with the (I would argue, tiny minority of) radical elements in the field who wish to see the structures of academia and society change in a more just, equitable, and democratic direction.
I chose Trimbur’s article out of an anthology of canonical essays in the field because it is my favorite in the collection. Trimbur generously considers counterarguments and acknowledges Bruffee’s contribution to collaborative pedagogy before articulating his thoughtful critique. If pressed to point for any elements which may be ‘missing’ from this piece, the only reasonable response I could come up with would be to say that the essay might benefit from a development in one area in particular. Trimbur claims:
“Bruffee argues that such an emphasis on conflict [difference] has led his left-wing critics to want to ‘turn to “struggle” to force change in people’s interests’’ [Response 714]. I would reply that struggle is not something people, left-wing or otherwise, can ‘turn to’ or choose to do. ‘Struggle,’ at least the way I understand it, is something we’re born into: it’s a standard feature of contemporary social existence” (469).
While I agree with Trimbur that ‘stuggle’ is built into ‘contemporary social existence,’ I may reframe the discourse: various and varying degrees of struggle and oppression are built into contemporary social existence under state-corporate capitalism. And even with this point of agreement, I might suggest development here because, as standard a feature as struggle may be, power systems often need to be sought out and uncovered. Not all struggle and oppression is obvious. A range of societal power structures – whether they pertain to corporate financial malfeasance or patriarchal family systems – might not initially feel oppressive to the victims. They might recognize these oppressive structures as ingrained, unchangeable facts of life, if they recognize them at all. It often takes critical education to uncover the functioning of unjust power systems.
Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Second edition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 461-77. Print.