Consensus as Utopia?

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?


4 thoughts on “Consensus as Utopia?

  1. I wonder what this consensus (either one) actually looks like in the classroom. For example, today I asked students, in small groups, to visualize a certain section of our text on the white board. They developed a consensus around the image and explained it to class. That noted, I don’t think, if pushed, they would have strongly help to a point of view that the particular image the group drew was the only way to proceed. So, it seems there may be a sort of good-enough-for-the-class-activity type of consensus that might differ from a formal paper assignment. For that, come back next week for collaborative writing!


    • An interesting point, Adam, because the “low stakes” or “no stakes” of an in-class activity might yield indifference we might need to consider whether we have encouraged a critical consensus or an ambivalent consensus. I think this might have been what Traci was alluding to regarding students in the class where one student “assumes command” of the group and the other students permit — willingly or not is debatable — that student to perform the activity.

      I could see this possibility as a high risk with first-year courses. Many of the upper division students have motivation and commitment, though on reflection I note that the Tech Writing students quickly deferred to “strong writers” (self-identified) more quickly than the Science Writing students.


  2. Matt, you comprehensively deconstruct the various definitions of consensus and the potential for disruption within the collaborative learning space posited in this week’s reading. I found your comment “No student in in English 324 Writing in the Sciences would conflate the writing of a review of research and other ‘for fun’ writing” particularly interesting, not to mention logical and accurate. At first glance, I nodded and thought, right, absolutely these students wouldn’t confuse these types of writing. They are such disparate genres. On second thought, I wonder if my quick consensus to this comment might be problematic. For purposes of the learning Bruffee and Trimbur propose should happen in collaborative learning, do you think it would be valuable to challenge students in English 324 with hybrid genres, things that bend the boundaries between the “review” and the “fun”? Since Trimbur uses Stephen King as an example, I will use by way of my own example King’s handbook On Writing as a sample hybrid text that presents a sophisticated analysis of fiction replete with narrative examples that read like the vignettes of a novel. Something like this might complicate, disrupt, and deepen a student’s knowledge of genre not as a static, uniform template but a thriving, creative process. I guess what I’m suggesting, Matt, is that the collaborative experience, as proposed by this week’s theorists, works best when it pushes, complicates, and problematizes consensus. I wonder if we shouldn’t target those things we initially think as given and encourage instead the type of “skepticism about the appeals to reality and consensus” Myers promotes in his essay (436). I enjoyed your post, Matt.


    • Interestingly, there is a lot more “pushing” occurring among the conventions for science writing. The most notable for me is pronoun usage in articles. While pronoun usage seems trivial in many respects, every week a student visits the Center for Writers with a concern about pronoun use — “Can I use ‘I’ here?” or “My professor wants me to take out all the pronouns but its hard.”

      Scholarship probably exists regarding the trends of pronoun usage among scientific writers, but for now, I will only note that a major problem with omitting pronouns might be the writers cannot retain a sense of ownership or engagement. I was in the lab performing the experiment — why should I resort to passive voice? A lot of students have reported a sense of disconnect with scholarship for an assortment of reasons. The main reason is typically the research project receives funding from a granting agency or corporate sponsor so a major vested interest controls the choice of project. However, I argue the frequent encouragement to “purge” the scholar from scholarship, by omitting pronouns and using passive voice, causes a similar feel of disengagement.

      I suppose this line of reasoning means that I have my own utopia regarding research: the scholar can select her project. The ideology that Myers identifies, however, are very conspicuous which makes the utopia consensus seem even more out of reach. Hence, to personalize the idea, I enroll in an English program and find that I have learned more about Science (big “S”) than most STEM graduate students. You are correct, Rob, there is a need to push and to challenge the imagined lines. And I think rhetoric is a great means for doing so.

      Liked by 1 person

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