Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.
The Future University: Integrating ESL, Collaborative Learning Groups, & Technology
The world of academic writing is at an impasse of high importance. To some, discerning the path English education and writing classrooms should take feels more like interpreting the swirling gases of a crystal ball and less like planning strategic steps toward a well-designed pedagogy. It seems as if composition theorists are standing together at a fork in the road similar to the one in Robert Frost's yellow wood, only their fork has four tines instead of two, and it feels as though their choice will have to take one of the paths and leave the others behind. Bizzell, Bruffee, Butler, and Trimbur all offer their own roads for the future, each proposing a different focus for the writing classroom - ESL, collaborative learning groups, multiculturalism and contact zones, and technology - that at first glance does not mix with the views of his peers. Their theories are daring the composition world to choose one of four directions: the well-trod road, the road less traveled by, a new trail blazed through the unkempt foliage, or a combination of the paths. The trouble is that no one path alone seems to offer, as of yet, a comprehensive roadmap to success; however, when combined, their diverse paths might help form a wide road into the future paved with their complementary viewpoints.
In recent years, more and more educators have been choosing the path lined with collaborative learning groups. Though still not the dominant standard in composition classrooms, collaborative learning groups have earned their place amidst many theoretical discussions on the topic. They have a credibility they did not at first have. Many see them as sound pedagogical practice for involving students in their learning by asking the instructor to hand over the scepter of knowledge and pass it around to the students. In opposition to the Cartesian model, collaborative groups allow students to discover and create truth as a group because the teacher, with good conscience, no longer sees himself as the gatekeeper of knowledge. Bruffee views collaborative learning groups as an example of "the blind leading the blind," a belief which stands him in opposition to many contemporary theorists who believe truth to be socially-constructed and see collaborative groups as the best way to model that view. This still-changing, yet widely-held belief in the student-directed learning ideal problematizes the teacher-down instruction model while at the same time considering the many issues that loom large in the future.
There is much to consider: ESL students, technology, classroom size, distance learning, community involvement, and the financial cost of it all. Theorists such as Paul Matsuda have worked hard to offer a detailed history of ESL programs. His discussion about the separation between mainstream and ESL composition classrooms raises the question, "How can composition studies integrate second-language elements into [their] institutional practices?" (Villanueva 790). With so many second language learners entering college classrooms, the question deserves attention and an answer, otherwise the chasm looks to widen between mainstream and basic writers.
Patricia Bizzell is one of the theorists trying to bridge that chasm with her essay "'Contact Zones' and English Studies," which offers up suggested improvements of the present system. Her path would have faculty forego their "unwillingness to depart from their specialized fields" (Villanueva 479). New literatures would no longer be finagled into the old literary categories. Student differences would not be disrespectfully glossed over. English studies would be organized, "not in terms of chronological periods, not essentialized racial or gender categories, but rather in terms of historically defined contact zones" (Villanueva 483). Teachers would no longer teach "Shakespeare" or "Early American Literature" or "British Renaissance." They would instead organize the classroom around different social issues which are put into dialogue with each other based on a contact zone of a certain time and place.
In action, her idea could look like an American Civil War discussion focused on both Negro Spiritual hymns, the Gettysburg Address, and Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." All active within the same historical time and place, these works would speak to each other in interesting ways if thrown into the mix together. Politics would be discussed in the same breath with hyperbolic literature. Religion would be explored in conjunction with racial dynamics under the political umbrella. Another contact zone discussion could look like the following mixture of turn of the century literature: Zitkala-Sa's Impressions of an Indian Childhood , Upton Sinclair's The Jungle , the Monroe Doctrine, and Ida Tarbell's expose of the oil monopoly, History of the Standard Oil Company . An unlikely combination of works such as this would offer students a unique view of the period of conflict and raise thought-provoking questions based on political and social issues that deserve discussion. Throughout the semester, every student would get to see the work of his culture as both praised and criticized, as the teacher would carefully put texts into conversation with each other that could eventually represent all the students in the class.
Bizzell might be onto something with the general concept of contact zones. Placing different works in conversation with each other may have value on its own, but taking her "contact zone" idea into collaborative learning groups could open up the discourse between students, both ESL and mainstream, virtual and real. Merging the multicultural aspect of Bizzell's idea into the traditional curriculum goes a long way toward creating what John Trimbur valued as dissensus, his attempt at a combined pathway for the future. In his essay "Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning," he, like Bizzell, argues against hierarchy while lobbying for heterogeneity. His rational understanding of the fixity of the academic system, meaning that the academic hierarchy tends to resist change and needs a spark to get going, allows him to ask better questions and come up with better answers. He is less interested with consensus - although this, of course, happens at times in classrooms - as with their using consensus to open up the conversation by highlighting and analyzing differences (Villanueva 476). His belief that "[t]he point of such discussion is not to reach agreement about what properly belongs in the realm of literature" but for students to begin "to see that literature exists as a social category that depends on its relation to non-literature" (475). His desire for a discussion of literature in relation to politics seems to fit with Bizzell's classroom constructed around contact zones.
An open conversation of literature in relation to what Trimbur calls non-literature is what he and Bizzell seem most enamored by. Trimbur is lobbying for a dissensus-centered classroom in which all the issues end up getting discussed because the teacher is actively guiding the students past easy consensus into a deeper dialogue and composition about the literature. A classroom conversation of Trimbur's could look like the following:
Teacher: You hopefully just finished writing your thoughts about Robert Frost's poem "The Road Less Traveled." Would anyone like to share what he thinks it means?
Student #1: I wrote that I think the speaker is standing at a place where two roads split apart, and when he takes the path people don't usually take, he's happy about his choice.
Teacher: Did anyone else think that?
Class: [All but three students raise their hands.]
Teacher: Good. That's definitely one way of looking at this poem. Did anyone look at it a different way?
Student #2: I don't know. I thought it might mean something else.
Teacher: That's all right. What did you think?
Student #2: Well, I wrote about how I think the man is looking back at the choice he made and wishing he could go back and choose the other path. I think that's what that line "And that has made all the difference" could mean.
Teacher: All right. That's good. Did anyone else have a different view?
Teacher: Okay. Then why don't we look at these two views and see which one works in relation to the poem. Maybe we'll find out that they both work.
A conversation such as this goes a long way toward what Bizzell calls "negotiating difference," but it would not be enough to only discuss the individual work on its own merit. She would then want this discussion to explore how Frost's fork in the road might be similar to Lincoln's Gettysberg Address, which says, "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Putting Frost in dialogue with Lincoln and other similar works would open up lines of discussion which avoid consensus and value dissensus, overthrowing what Trimbur sees as "the current professional monopolies of knowledge" (472). The academic elite would no longer be able to exclude "the majority of the population from the conversation" or be able "to remove knowledge from public discourse" (472). Instead of transmitting what Bizzell calls "a unitary literature and literacy," those with the power would need to allow students an active voice (482) and offer an environment in which to express that voice.
The well-trod road of collaborative learning groups might be a way with which to incorporate both Trimbur's and Bizzell's ideas into the pedagogical future of the classroom. If Bruffee is right when he claims that "the first [step] to learning to think better . . . [is] learning to converse better," then collaborative learning groups are the way for writers - basic, ESL, or otherwise - to enter the academic discourse (421). They provide a community of peers, or "status equals," with which the student can attempt Bartholomae's transition to the university (423). What students need in order to function inside academic discourse is "not a process of assimilating 'the truth' but, as Rorty has put it, a process of learning to take a hand in what is going on by joining 'the conversation of mankind'" (428). This social transition into a new discourse community, which Bartholomae calls "inventing the university," demands that students engage in a "crises of identity and authority" as they "begin to generate a transitional language to bridge the gap between communities" (430). This means that as "certified representatives of the communities of knowledgeable peers that students aspire to join" teachers should do their best to help students find their identity and authority within the academic discourse (431).
From this viewpoint, teachers would be educated trail guides leading students to where they want to go instead of acclaimed photographers bringing back pictures and telling students they now have the real thing. Like Bizzell's contact zones and Trimbur's focus on dissensus, Bruffee's collaborative learning groups would require that teachers have less power over the learned matter of the classroom. All three of their views put a dialogical focus on open, honest discussion and writing about the subject matter instead of a top-down delivery of pre-discovered, filtered, and organized data. It is through this "collective investigation of differences [that] students can begin to imagine ways to change the relations of production and to base the conversation not on consensus but on reciprocity and the mutual recognition of the participants and their differences" (476). Bruffee's idea here seems as if it could walk hand in hand with Trimbur's and Bizzell's if it wanted to, as it seems they all desire a slightly different angle of the same overarching concept.
However, the dynamics of collaborative learning groups and classroom environments will not be able to stay the same under the pressures exerted by such critics, their theories, and the increasing pressure exerted by the swell of technological advancements. Composition classes will need to teach writing in new ways in order to push the discourse to evolve further. One development that technology offers for consideration is what Wayne Butler calls "electronic discourse communities," a term that is not unique to his discussion. Calling on the dialogue of Gail Hawisher and other educational technology experts, he details what composition classrooms might look like in a networked environment of digital rhetoric. Students would be:
linked through their networked computers into a literate learning community in which more of them will participate in the class's meaning-making discourse than they typically would in traditional classrooms, they will contribute to a textual conversation made up of more diversity in voices and perspectives than would be possible in other settings, and they will be more engaged and active learners than they might be in more traditional literacy environments (558).
They would be participants in an active digital literacy, "not imitative but creative" within the social and intellectual dialogue (558), one that at first glance looks to accommodate Bizzell's contact zone students, Trimbur's students of dissensus, and Bruffee's collaborative learners.
The electronic composition classroom would look like a lab connected to itself via a local area network (LAN) and to the outside world via a wide area network (WAN - i.e. the Internet). The writing community of the student would become names instead of faces, virtual instead of physical. The student would continue to imagine his audience much the same way Walter Ong proposes he has to fictionalize his audience all the time anyway. The writing within the community would take on various forms, all posted within the discourse of the Internet - formal written work (i.e. essays), computer-mediated conferencing, email correspondence, discussion boards, blogs, and other online journals. The environment would keep a faster pace. Students would engage in multiple discussion threads, all collaborative, in which they would post responses to the work of other students, in their classroom and without. The result is what Lester Faigley calls "a truly hybrid form of discourse, something between oral and written, where the conventions of turn-taking and topical coherence are altered. Another difference from oral discussion is that students can move back and forth in the emerging transcript to check what was 'said' earlier" (168). Further, "various studies have confirmed, that within electronic communities not only does student discourse take an equal or more dominant place as compared to teachers' discourse, but females and minorities have better opportunity to participate in meaning-making discourse" (562). Their statements are then considered more on a basis of merit than on the status of the "speaker," especially considering the recent development and availability of free language translation technology, which, because of its inaccuracies, may offer the most benefit at secondary and middle school levels. Language barriers would no longer be barriers but open doors to uncharted discourses and would offer a greater possibility for Bizzell's contact zones and Trimbur's dissensus. It seems that electronic discourse communities offer the traditionally-marginalized students more space in electronic discourse than they have had within the oral discourse of traditional classrooms and collaborative learning groups.
The question is "Do all these roads make sense when they are put together?" How can contact zones, dissensus, collaborative learning groups, and technology work together toward a common goal and future? One of the staple values of the composition classroom is safety because students must feel the freedom to share their ideas. This eases their nerves and keeps the group from, what Trimbur considers, an unnatural groupthink consensus. While the e-groups allow more room for what Bruffee labels "abnormal discourse" and free thinking, students may feel too free to share their off-the-wall ideas, often derailing or distracting students from the main discussion threads. While their abnormal discourse may challenge the commonplace ideas of the mainstream dialogue, their ideas can easily be dismissed by simply not responding to them, leaving them as just another forgotten thread amidst the quickly moving electronic dialogical river. Butler reported that students also experienced communication anxiety and sensory overload from the seemingly disunified and incoherent scattered discourse. Perhaps this is where Bizzell would direct the class toward a dialogue about another competing topic and harness the abandoned threads later down the road. This constant refocusing might keep students from developing what Butler calls a lower communication efficiency, an academic laziness, as they can add new words in response to previous ones, fixing their errors and clarifying their misunderstood remarks. As Trimbur would want it, their discourse is more often uninhibited and less-reflective than in the traditional classroom environment. All things considered, the electronic discourse community seems a probable destination for the writing classroom, but how the education world will be able to overcome its shortcomings is sure to be the topic of much future discussion.
Since the flood of technology seems impossible to avoid, the response of the academic world to its surging waters seems an important topic on the agenda. Some rendition of collaborative learning groups certainly appears to be the future of the composition classroom, but "how" and "in what form" remain the great questions. Because of their potential for integration of the multicultural needs of ESL and other students, they seem the most beneficial and logical development of the writing world and the path most situated to assimilate the ideas of the other theories. Still, not all classrooms are even using collaborative learning groups, much less further evolutions of this concept. It is yet to be seen whether or not classrooms that have yet to totally embrace the idea of collaborative learning groups will switch over and move directly into an online, digital version of this pedagogical tool or whether the dangers inherent in a largely unknown medium are worth the costs of progress. Regardless of which path gets chosen in the near future, theorists will certainly look back to this fork in the road and agree that our decision here is what made all the difference.
Bruffee, K.A. A Short Course in Writing. Boston: Little Brown, 1998.
Butler, Wayne. "Electronic Discourse Communities: Theory, Practice, and Research. Handbook of Research on Teaching Literacy through the Communicative and Visual Arts. New Jersey: Mahwah, 1997.
Faigley, L. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh, PA: U of P Press, 1992.
Villanueva, Victor, ed. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory . NCTE, 2003.
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