Bruffee, Newsroom, & the Internet

In the final episode of the HBO show The Newsroom, produced and primarily written by Aaron Sorkin, the manager of the show’s Internet presence, “ACN Digital,” returns from months away where he could not operate the site. Neal, the digital manager (Dev Patel), finds two immature, unimpressive web guys in his stead. In his first minutes back at his job, Neal overhears them arguing over the details concerning a post about to go live on the site. It’s titled, “The Nine Most Overrated Movies of All Time.” The scene continues:

Web guy: Are you Neal?
Neal: Yeah.
Web guy: Welcome back, man.
Neal: “The Nine Most Overrated Movies of All Time?”
Web guy: We thought it would be fun.
Neal: For who?
Web guy: For movie fans.
Neal: I saw you went all the way back to The Matrix.
Web guy: Yeah.
Neal: 1999.
Web guy: Yeah.
Neal: “All time” and 14 years are two different units of measurement. But my question is why is overrated more fun than, say, underrated? You embarrass me.
Web guy: I what?
Neal: It took me a long time to build ACN Digital. I was laughed at by the people in this newsroom. People I respect didn’t respect what I did around here, but I built this into a tool that gathered, expanded on, and disseminated information that’s useful. I kept telling my colleagues and my bosses that the Internet is user sensitive just like most things.
And I’ve watched from 1,000 miles away while you proved that. You embarrass me. Build a page that says the site’s down for repair.
Web guy: For an hour?
Neal: For a week. We’re gonna rebuild the whole thing.

While Neal was away, the ACN Digital site became the lowest common denominator for Internet “conversation.” It may have received hits, but did so by sacrificing quality. The scene from Newsroom, in a vintage Sorkin sort of way, illustrates the promise and power of wise, informed, liberal values.

I sense hints of similar notions in Kenneth A. Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” At one point, Bruffee suggests:

“To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively—that is, we must learn to converse well. The first steps learning to think better, therefore, are learning to converse better and learning to establish and maintain the sorts of social context, the sorts of community life, that foster the sorts of conversation members of the community value” (401).

Bruffee’s hope and belief in the value of conversation recalls a certain Internet-utopian ideal, one referenced by the scene in Newsroom but certainly present many places. Such a notion is more than “build it and they will come.” While it certainly claims the necessity of building, of making a space for conversation, it also pushes conversationalists to increase the level of the conversation.

I wonder, then, if the Internet might be understood as a sort of meta-space for collaborative learning. If so, does the Internet accomplish the aims imagined by Bruffee?

How can we use digital tools, in our teaching, for positive collaborative learning (whether Bruffeean or Trimburian)?


One thought on “Bruffee, Newsroom, & the Internet

  1. While the Internet brings people together to create that space for community, I am sometimes concerned about the way the conversation changes when it is not only written instead of spoken, but electronically shareable.

    On one hand, it makes the conversation more public (even if within a controlled space) and hopefully more thoughtful in terms of knowing that it can easily be shared. (I do realize this is very utopian-thinking of me to think this.)

    On the other hand, it makes the conversation more public and can discourage people from presenting the layered (and sometimes ugly) true realities of the situation. Is that a conversation that aids in learning?

    Although I see great potential in Internet-mediated conversation (and have seen great things), I find myself very cautious.


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