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Rooted in Bruffee's suggestion that "How we teach . . . is what we teach" (442), Trimbur's essay argues that collaborative learning can help students find the dissensus in a discourse. Trimbur focuses on two criticisms of collaborative learning. The conservative criticism equates collaborative learning with "group think" and suggests that it undermines a student's individuality. The liberal criticism suggests that collaborative learning's emphasis on coming to a consensus is mistaken as it ignores power inequality in the construction of a consensus; in other words, it ignores the voices that are excluded or marginalized when a group comes to a consensus. Trimbur responds to the conservative criticism by noting that it suggests a mistaken understanding of the individual (one that sees the individual as not socially constructed). He also argues that instead of liberating the individual, conservative teaching styles actually keep students isolated from one another and thereby deprive them of the community necessary to empower them. Trimbur then mounts a defense of the liberal criticism of collaborative learning by discussing a problem with Richard Rorty's conception of "conversation." Rorty's vision of intellectual conversation freed from "reference to metaphysical foundations" (444) is flawed by a romantic account of "abnormal discourse." Rorty imagines "the genius, the rebel, the fool" (445) who occasionally intervenes and reinvigorates intellectual conversation when it becomes stagnant. According to Trimbur, liberal critics worry that by emphasizing the presence of dissent in conversation, Rorty ignores "the discourses silenced or unheard in the conversation" (446). In contrast to Rorty's account of collaborative conversation, Trimbur proposes a model of learning that privileges dissensus. Instead of asking students to come to "collective agreements," we should ask them to come to "collective explanations of how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences" (448). Trimbur thinks that collaborative learning should call into question the status of college professors (among others) as "experts" because the university system "prevents the formation of consensus by shrinking the public sphere and excluding the majority of the population from the conversation" (450). Drawing on Jurgen Habermas's ideas, Trimbur suggests that we adopt a model of consensus that is "utopian," not because consensus is a state that we could actually achieve once we removed "relations of domination and systematic distortion" (454), but because a utopian model of consensus allows students "a critical measure to identify the relations of power in the formation of expert judgment" (452). While Trimbur notes that "collaborative learning can[not] constitute more than momentarily an alternative to the present asymmetrical relations of power and distribution of knowledge," he hopes that creating a class with "a heterotopia of voices" may allow students "to imagine alternative worlds and transformation of social life and labor" (455).


Okay, Trimbur helps me understand--I think--some of my uneasiness about Bruffee, and about packs of teenage girls.

I like how Trimbur redefines things thus: “Abnormal discourse…is neither as romantic nor as pragmatic as Rorty makes it out to be,� as Steven notes above. Trimbur, despite all the academic frou-frou langauge, makes far more sense than Bruffee (to me). I’m particularly interested in the idea of dissensus, especially as I think it is students’ proclivity to try to be in consensus all the time, to try to reach agreement, often forced or ridiculous agreement, usually supporting current cliches & conventions.

I thought Trimbur's "free market" analogy was very helpful--we have free markets now, more or less, and yet sub-Saharan Africa is poorer now than it was 40 years ago. What gives? The economic "conversation" tends to reinforce the way things are. (With a little help from the people in power.)

I would like to know, well, precisely how to make this work in a classroom. Do you think small group "Rogerian" arguments (although I know nothing of Rogerian arguments beyond what Steven and Pamela said in class) would do it, somehow, mapping areas of consensus and dissensus? I really like Trimbur's "collective explanations of how people differ," but then I want a little bit of the Bean-ian, "how to."

I also found Trimbur a little easier to appreciate than Bruffee, in that Trimbur is very willing to acknowledge that consensus isn't always a desirable goal. I was struck in particular by his statements that his "revised notion of consensus...depends paradoxically on its deferral, not its realization" (454) and that consensus should not necessarily be "an agreement that reconciles differences through an ideal conversation but rather as the desire of humans to live and work together with differences" (454). I know that I'm always much happier when students reach consensus, but that's probably because it makes my job easier and I can put on a nice little bow on things and send them on their way. "Dissensus" isn't always a very comfortable place to be, but maybe that's the point, and in my mind that's more how the world "out there" works, and that seems to me to be better preparation for students than teaching them to reach artificial agreements and conclusions just for the sake of neatness.

Absolutely! I am actually very uncomfortable with consensus in my emphasis on multiculturalism class, because it means to me that I haven't done a good enough job of bringing forth all the voices. The best classes are the ones where I have to say loudly that "it's time to leave -- we aren't going to settle this today" and the students walk out of the room, still debating.

Thanks, Steven, for summarizing this challenging article. I found this one harder than the Elbow.

Ah, “reify,� “heterotopia�—and “atomized�? Bohr is turning in his grave.

I agree with most of Trimbur’s points, even as I find his “expert� vocabulary a little nauseating. Absolutely, “one of the functions of the professions and the modern university has been to specialize and to remove knowledge from public discourse and decision-making, to reduce it to a matter of expertise and technique� (383). And consensus seems much more sinister when we consider that it’s achieved, or rather precluded, by “excluding the majority of the population from the conversation� (383). Theorists of community work often advocate a more inclusive conversation, as well as opportunities to investigate differences among audiences and interests.

The deliberate limitation of our discourse is why, even as we offer our professional judgment, we must encourage its critique. We’re not only helping induct students into a community but asking them to help us change that community. It’s a complex undertaking to explore with students how disciplinary knowledge has evolved; it’s a simpler point, and one we can feasibly help students discover, that the conventions of discourse (knowledge-making and maintaining) serve a powerful few.

I’d like to ask students to consider what’s required for real conversation. They’ll probably respond with ideas about listening and respect, which could lead into a discussion of how to address difference, including how differences are often addressed. Thea makes a good point that students may not identify their classmates as “peers� with equal status. Once we acknowledge that we have differing levels of investment in and skepticism about the conversation, we ask where to go from there. Believing game?

I think that this article is an excellent example about how “conversation� and social construction of knowledge work: Trimbur arguing Bruffe’s ideas and both of them discussing Habermas and Rorty groundwork. I found that, despite the fact that almost all of the article is focused on conversation in literatures classes and the polemic of benefits of dissensus and, especially, the risks of consensus, the idea of using the consensus working to create an opportunity to built dissensus is inspiring and useful in any kind of class.
Nevertheless I am not completely sure about the reliability of “heterogeneity without hierarchy� inside the classroom. How does it work? Even when we decide to “share� the authority in the class, it could still happen because we (as hierarchical participant of the classroom) decide on the procedure. We can decide to play a different game in the classroom but, as Delpit would say, “the power still exists� because the academic institution (and every occidental institution) is based on hierarchical organization.

I like the fact that Trimbur is at once advocating a "utopian" model of consensus and at the same keeping his feet on the ground. I think the points brought up here such as Maru's question about authority/heirarchy are big ones, and I agree that Trimbur is missing the "how-to." Still, though, his explanation seems more realistic than Bruffee's.

I can identify with both Gary and Thea; there are days when I like that fact that my class seems to end on a unified note. On other days, though, I'm glad when they are thoughtfully, respectfully, completely at odds with each other. I really think there is a place for both consensus and dissensus, and I think Trimbur recognizes that. If we were always in complete agreement, there would be no impetus to change and grow. At the same time, though, if we were always at odds, life in the classroom and in general would be quite unpleasant.

Just to add to Heather's thought (and to my previous one), I think that “ambiguity� and lack of consensus can be a frustrating idea for a lot of students (whether in a collaborative learning situation or not). From a strictly self-centered of point of view, encouraging “dissensus� has the potential to make us look “bad,� and of course who wants that? For instance, I once had a student write on an evaluation that you could say anything in the class and it would most likely be "right" – and inferring from the other “numbers� I received I don't think he/she meant that in a good way. So do you give them what they want or shake them up? Students don’t necessarily want a “process� – they want a “thing,� something they can get their arms around. It seems to me that that's the ultimate challenge of teaching -- to make it seem like you’re doing both (in other words, being a Bartholomaic Elbowian?) For me, I know I need to do a better job of helping students accept the lack of answers/consensus, even when the other messages they get about what an education is "for" and how it “should� be are inconsistent with that. Either that or make things tidy, as I said above, which might lead to higher evaluations but isn’t always a very realistic message about how the world “works.�

I think it's very true, what Gary says, that students really crave the 30-minute sitcom ending, and feel like we've somehow failed them if they don't get it. Maybe we need to attack that, somehow, at the start of classes?

I also think Maru makes a good point--this shouldn't mask the fact that real hierarchy does still exist...

Excellent summary, Steven, and excellent discussion, all, as folks acknowledge the "true-ness" of Trimbur's views on consensus/dissensus and also try to figure out what sort of credible teaching practices might be based on this trueness.

I think that you move toward what Marcia calls "Beanian" how-to when you go back to focusing on your students. Ann puts our challenge (and that of our students) well when she notes that we're simultaneously inducting students into academic discourse while at the same time asking them to provide (and act on) its critique and evolution.

A couple things to remember: (a)
Ours is not the only class students will ever take and (b) Trimbur addresses teachers, us, rather than students in this essay. Is it possible for us to make students conscious of the politics of power that operate in any discourse community while teaching them, gradually, to become players/writers. I thinks so. Bit by bit, we do this when we ask them to go out into the community and interact in/reflect on non-academic discourse communities, or ask them to reflect on why a psychological hypothesis has come to be written in the form that it has come to be written in, or when we ask students to discuss ideas and then reflect on the different views voiced by their peers---all of these things are moving toward a fruitful dissensus it seems to me.