April 6, 2006


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).