Collaboration and the dark side of consensus

The conversation between Bruffee and Myers represents the typical conflict between two seemingly conflicting pedagogical goals. One goal is to allow students to enter the discourse communities and the circles of power and prestige that will allow them to be successful in life. At the other end of the spectrum we find the goal of educating students to question the very discourses that they are trying to reproduce and interrogate the very practices of power that exert a fascination over their minds. This clash between the need to conform and the ethical call not to conform runs as an undercurrent in many debates in the fields of composition and English Language Teaching. Should we teach the prestige varieties of English to empower international students (in terms of opportunities) or the more democratic, compromising, hybrid, and accessible English as a Lingua Franca (or global English)? Should we teach collaboration or competition (“leadership” appears to be a mantra in the US)?

The issue at stake in our readings for this week is cooperation: the importance of negotiating consensus in the classroom, where the classroom is understood (or should be understood) as a microcosm of the ‘real word.’ Leonard and Bruffee seems to argue that students must find their way towards consensus by playing down their differences because this readiness to conform is what the ‘real word’ values and rewards. Their emphasis on the importance of the social dimension of writing, peer collaboration, and task-based learning is laudable, almost intoxicating but Myers asks that we explore the dark side of consensus. He paints bleak portraits of students forced to renounce thoughts that are incompatible with the orthodoxies of a given social group (or discourse communities) with the goal of being productive as an undifferentiated ensemble.

Myers brings the limelight on some of the dangers and weaknesses of collaborative pedagogies. Reaching consensus, from his perspective, means to enforce conformity at the expense of diversity and healthy conflict. In a similar vein, he claims that the emphasis on the needs of the ‘real word’ stems from the naïve idea that the ‘real word’ is “natural, outside of our control” (p. 440). Well put, and there is more. Myers is also right when he points out that the growth of knowledge and the change of paradigms can never be reduced to factors internal to a discipline or a narrow discourse community (p.453). His call for an alternative way of seeing change in terms of social and economic factors is right on target. In other words, ideology must be accounted for; ideology cannot always sit outside of the classroom door, half-heartedly waiting for a chance to be invited inside for a show and tell workshop.

Now, these brilliant thinkers leave us with a problem that keeps resurfacing in all the debates that cut across English Composition. The mother of all dilemmas: How do we reconcile a pragmatic approach to teaching with our surreptitious and a bit clandestine desire to embrace critical pedagogies? Perhaps, we should save the word on our own time, as Stanley Fish polemically suggests, or else, we could try to save it in subtle ways, with the lightness of the butterfly, rather than the heaviness of the elephant. While I side with Bruffee and his call for collaborative learning (of course, I am a TAPPer, after all), I believe that teachers have to be ready to throw the production of consensus into disarray when they notice that creative pluralism is being threatened by cheap conformism.

My questions:

Do you see the dangers and limits of collaborative pedagogies in the same way as Myers sees them?

Do you see other problems that perhaps he overlooked?

What is the greatest danger with cooperation?


One thought on “Collaboration and the dark side of consensus

  1. The double consciousness that Myers proposes toward the conclusion of the essay surprised me. In some ways, Myers retreated into fatalism which seemed to acknowledge perhaps the ‘real’ world is the Real world. However, I must admit the conclusion left me baffled so perhaps I missed something.

    What Myers seems to overlook is the configuration of school dynamics. For one, the boundary between the classroom and non-classroom spaces is frequently transgressed, to the point that perhaps the notion that composition does not engage with the real world is severely misguided — or the boundary is a fiction concocted between the failures of business to prepare students post-graduation. I oppose any effort to transform universities into “free training” for companies, when the companies themselves ought to provide the specialized training.

    For another, the faculty are perhaps a more vulnerable population than the students. Maybe sharing an office with someone researching contingent / adjunct faculty has influenced me. However, I would direct attention toward this study about composition assessment and the economics of labor. It is ironic that a Marxist missed the most glaring separation between means of production and the product.


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