What is Knowledge?

Bazerman and Bruffee 

                In his 1984 article, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” Kenneth Bruffee posits that collaborative learning can be effective (and sometimes problematic) in helping students understand and join the conversation—or “normal discourse”—of their chosen discipline.  After briefly explaining the history of collaborative knowledge, Bruffee begins discussing the social nature of conversation as it relates to development of the human thought process.  Using Lev Vygotsky’s theories of internalization, Bruffee directs his attention to writing and composition: “If thought is internalized public and social talk, then writing of all kinds is internalized social talk made public and social again” (88).  It is in this section that Bruffee almost directly speaks with Charles Bazerman.  Together the two articles attempt to tackle knowledge.

                Bazerman, on the other hand, is mostly concerned with the form, or genre, of the written knowledge.  He begins his chapter titled, “What Written Knowledge Does: Three Examples of Academic Discourse,” with three criticisms of written knowledge and critically analyzes the following: how each genre does what it does, why the authors have used this genre, and why it works for the intended audience.  In the end, Bazerman suggests that “text and genre” are central not in response to “emerging regularities of rhetorical universe, but in helping indeed to create that rhetorical universe” (49).

                Bruffee also discusses the importance of genre in the normal discourse of a knowledge community.  Everyone in the community agrees on conventions, “relevant” contributions, “good” questions, and “good” arguments or criticisms (89).  Professors expect students to master the normal discourse of their discipline: “Not to have mastered the normal discourse of a discipline…is not to be knowledgeable in that discipline” (90).  Of course, students need to practice the normal discourse of their discipline before they can fully participate in it; collaborative learning, in theory, provides the environment in which students can practice mastering the normal discourse of their discipline. 

Bazerman writes that “symbolic developments”—meaning genre conventions and other accepted properties of normal discourse—do not shift merely because the fashion of the discipline changes.  Instead, “[s]ymbolic systems react to experiences and situations” such as interaction with different knowledge communities or as a result of “old meanings” becoming inadequate to address “emerging ideas and experiences” (21).  One of the most important reasons for change in the normal discourse of a knowledge community or discipline is to create a new space for “shared understanding and agreement where none existed previously” (21).  While stability is comfortable, flexibility is crucial if a discourse community wishes to thrive in academia. 

Similarly, Bruffee explains that knowledge is a “thing people make and remake” through “socially justifying belief;” knowledge is “the product of human beings in a state of continual negotiation or conversation” (92).  For Bruffee, “abnormal discourse” challenges the authority of the community; it is through this challenge of authority that normal discourse shifts the focus or conventions of a knowledge community.  Abnormal discourse can be anything from mere nonsense to “intellectual revolution” (93). 

               While Bazerman and Bruffee analyze knowledge from seemingly different positions, the two articles have much in common.  Both Bazerman and Bruffee posit that knowledge communities (or disciplines) utilize conventions and genres in their normal discourse; only through widespread agreement will those conventions change or shift.  The main difference in the two articles is accessibility and practicality.  Bruffee approaches knowledge conventions from the stance of educating students and encouraging them to join the normal discourse of their discipline, which enables access to an unknown world.  Conversely, Bazerman explores generic differences as they reflect the genre and the knowledge community’s values and goals; although some students will find invaluable information in Bazerman’s article, they are not his intended audience.  Bazerman is writing normal discourse for his knowledge community, and Bruffee is helping others become part of the knowledge community.