A Short Analysis of Kenneth Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind”
through the Lens of Charles Bazerman’s “What Written Knowledge Does”
In the article entitled “What Written Knowledge Does,” Charles Bazerman employs the concepts of genre and analysis in order to discuss the relationships inherent between different types of knowledge and the ways in which said types of knowledge are presented as written text. Because knowledge and language are social artifacts, their usage is highly contextualized, and for an author to accomplish a particular goal it is necessary for the structure of the written information conveyed to be deliberate and appropriate to the context. Form, structure, and context affect meaning, and the “force of written language only maintains to the degree that contextual factors are properly aligned and the text is able to capitalize on these factors” (Bazerman 23).
In order to analyze the meaning of a given example of written text, as well as its contextual success or “force,” Bazerman outlines a system of scrutiny composed of four contexts for examination: 1) the object of study, 2) the literature of the field, 3) the anticipated audience, and 4) the author’s own self (Bazerman, 24). In “What Written Knowledge Does,” these lenses of context are employed in the analysis of three articles from three different genres to illuminate the ways in which topic, resource pool, audience, and author are utilized within specific rhetorical communities. This sort of multi-level analysis is clearly useful in the examination of written text, and it is with Bazerman’s article in mind that we employ his four contexts for examination on yet another text: “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind,” by Kenneth Bruffee.
The first and most obvious area to explore is the object of study. In the Bruffee piece, the topic is outlined clearly in the title and on the first page, in which the concept of collaborative learning is presented as a given, something alive and valid in the field. It is presented throughout the article as a topic of interest to educators and worthy of dialogue, and, while Bruffee does draw on a variety of developmental, social, and language-oriented learning theories to support his discussion, it is clear that he feels no need to argue vehemently for his cause. The author’s knowledge of his field is such that he can safely assume the “factuality” of what he is discussing, and can count on the comprehension of the Composition and Rhetoric community. In comparing this to the articles Bazerman analyzes in “What Written Knowledge Does,” it is interesting to note that the article most similar to Bruffee’s in the presentation of object of study is the scientific piece “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” in which the scientific factuality of the topic, as well as the understood body of knowledge functioning within the field, precludes the need for justification.
The second contextual lens, which Bazerman calls the literature of the field, refers to the discourses and references utilized by the author to construct the framework for the piece. In “Collaborative Learning,” Bruffee is able to insert references to various educators and developmental theorists, including Vygotsky, into the discussion of collaborative learning and community. By utilizing a framework of already-accepted theory, Bruffee structures his topic in such a way as to make it seem like a natural reality, which is similar to the technique used by Watson and Crick in “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”. Similarities can also be drawn between the Bruffee piece and Robert Merton’s “The Ambivalence of Scientists,” the second article analyzed by Bazerman, due to the very deliberate selection of which references and examples to include (and which not to include) in order to achieve the goal of convincing the audience, as well as the authors’ incorporation of personal theory into the text
The third of Bazerman’s contexts for examination involves the intended audience of a given piece. In this regard, the Bruffee piece is simple. The audience is composed of educators, individuals interested in English language pedagogy with a particular, defined focus on composition and rhetoric. With this clearly delineated audience in mind, Bruffee (an educator himself) is able to engage the reader using a combination of simple language and field-specific technical terminology, relying on a body of shared knowledge and an already established attitude of professional interest and belief in the topic. Bruffee’s intended audience most resembles that of the Watson and Crick piece in its obviously defined, field-savvy, professional audience. However, there are also similarities to be found between “Collaborative Learning,” the Merton piece, and Geoffrey Hartman’s “Blessing the Torrent,” due to the fact that each of these pieces mentioned seeks to lead the audience away from old ways of thinking and into new realms of discourse.
Finally, as the last step of the four-part analysis, we come to the issue of the author’s own self. In “Collaborative Learning,” the “I” is strongly felt, and it is this narrative voice that makes the work accessible to the reader. Bruffee, by using first-person language and personal reference, establishes himself as a credible professional, a fellow teacher, an educator dealing with the same issues as his audience, and a member of the “club.” This presentation of self differs from the presentations explored in the Bazerman article, in which the self was, respectively, a generic and passive voice subordinated to the object of study (Watson/Crick), an argumentative yet isolated voice relying almost entirely on the author’s own references to prove a point (Merton), and an entirely subjective, experiential voice (Hartman).
Taken together, these four segments of contextual analysis create a template for understanding the meaning and methodology of the article as a whole. The topic of the piece, collaborative learning within a classroom community of discourse, is presented as an obvious and important object of study, and although some support is drawn on, it is clear that the author knows his audience well enough to safely assume their understanding of key points. It is this knowledge of his intended audience as a group of professional educators that allows Bruffee to discuss the topic using field-specific terminology and theory, and to place himself (the “I”) in a position of academic comradery with his readers. Pertinent references are called upon, but much of the discussion is based on the author’s own theories, beliefs, and experiences in the field. This framework, while by no means extremely complicated, is fairly typical of many of the articles currently being published in the areas of composition, rhetoric, and pedagogy, and as a result functions as an excellent example of the ways in which context, or genre, dictates the form and meaning of a text.
It may be an over-simplification, but when it comes to issues of context, genre, and meaning, the way something is communicated is just as important as what is communicated. In “What Written Knowledge Does,” Charles Bazerman argues that each of the articles analyzed “speaks to its own moment and own intellectual space; each actively realizes its own goals in that moment and space” (Bazerman 47), and this is true of any successful text. Language is a social artifact, and its usage and meaning is dependent on the community framework, the intended audience, and the deliberate and structured presentation of the discourse in question. As demonstrated in the previous paragraphs, Kenneth Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind” is a interesting and coherent example of context-based genre writing, and provides an excellent vehicle for Bazermanian analysis.