Among the definitions for consensus, the most unusual yet potentially helpful is consensus as a utopia within an interpretive community. John Trimbur proposes this definition in “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” To develop the definition, Trimbur elaborates on two types of consensus. “[W]e will need to distinguish between consensus as an acculturative practice that reproduces business as usual and consensus as an oppositional one that challenges the prevailing conditions of production” (451*). The first type of consensus is perhaps more familiar because it resembles a discourse community into which a student might acculturate to a secondary discourse. The second type of consensus requires that students incorporate utopian concept in order to differentiate “the prevailing conditions of production” from other productive conditions. “From this perspective, consensus becomes a necessary fiction of reciprocity and mutual recognition, the dream of conversation as perfect dialogue. Understood as a utopian desire, assembled from the partial and fragmentary forms of the current conversation, consensus does not appear as the end or the explanation of the conversation but instead as a means of transforming it” (451). Excellent. More fictionalizing for us to consider. While I would enjoy exploring a connection between Ong’s fictional audience and Trimbur’s fictional consensus, I want to concentrate on the role of utopian consensus in a classroom.
Unlike Myers, Trimbur does propose a means to situate consensus into the classroom without assuming a dual-role. “The utopian view of consensus […] would abandon this expert-novice model of teaching and learning. Instead consensus would provide students with a critical measure to identify the relations of power in the formation of expert judgment” (Trimbur, 452). Presumably the expert-novice also means the mentor-mentee, so the utopian model would collapse the power dimension in order to permit students to grasp with the fictional ideal community. By differentiating between Shakespeare and Stephen King, students will discover “the rhetoric of dissensus that structures the dominant representation of what literature is and is not and that produces marked differences in the way they read and experience texts” (Trimbur, 453). I have speculations what this activity might resemble for composition but it is not quite as clear a division. No student in English 324 Writing in the Sciences would conflate the writing of a review of research and other “for fun” writing. The boundaries seem much more pronounced among composition activities – though the power differentiations are as pronounced as they are among literary interpretations (arguably, more pronounced).
The purpose of the utopia “to displace consensus to a horizon which may never be reached” (Trimbur, 454) seems effective in some regards. The social construction of knowledge in effect yields ‘moving targets’ for those individuals who have “unassimilated otherness,” (Trimbur, 454) to use Iris Marion’s phrase. However, I am uncertain how this dynamic unfolds within a composition course, in particular courses designed within the parameters of writing across the curriculum. The concept of the unobtainable, while accurate, also denies large amounts of evidence that produce confidence (over confidence?) in the stability of certain productive activities, in particular with language. Thus, I wonder…
Question: is Trimbur’s concept of a utopian view of consensus helpful to inform genre theory approaches to composition?
Question: does the concept of consensus (by any of the definitions offered) help us understand discourse communities (interpretative communities) any better? Does it address the ‘boundary problem’ of discourse communities and activity theory?