Sunday, March 29, 2009

Notes on Kenneth Bruffee

In order to provide everyone with as much information on Kenneth Bruffee as possible, I have posted my entire notes on him below (this was the "essay" that I ended up reading in my nervousness during my presentation). Also, I will post this, my PowerPoint, and handout on Blackboard.


Kenneth A. Bruffee is Professor of English and Director of the Scholars Program and the Honors Academy at Brooklyn College. He has also taught at the University of New Mexico, Northwestern University, the University of Virginia, Columbia University, Cooper Union, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Bruffee has led colloquia on collaborative learning, liberal education, and the authority of knowledge at such colleges as Brown University, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado, and Yale University to name but a few.

He was a member of the editorial advisory board for Liberal Education, the journal of the Association of American Colleges.

Bruffee's publications include:

A Short Course in Writing. 4th edition (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1992).

Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge, 2nd edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

Articles of his that have been anthologized include:

"Collaborative Learning: Some Practical Models." College English, 34 (1972).

"Collaborative Learning and 'The Conversation of Mankind'." College English, 46 (1984).

"Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Bibliographical Essay." College English, 48 (1986).


1956: Graduated with a BA in English from Wesleyan University.

1966: Earned a PhD in English from Northwestern University.

1972: Published the first peer tutoring handbook, A Short Course in Writing.

1976: Was the first Chair of the Modern Language Association’s Teaching of Writing Division.

1977: Co-founded the National Council of Writing Program Administrators.

1979: Became the founding editor of WPA, the journal of the National Council of Writing Program Administrators.

1979: Founded, along with his colleagues, the Brooklyn College Institute for Training Peer Tutors, which trained peer tutors and encouraged the development of writing centers and writing labs.

1979-82: Directed a FIPSE-funded Institute in Peer Tutoring and Collaborative Learning.

1984: Was keynote speaker at the Brown University Conference on peer tutoring.

1991-92: Was a Wolfe Institute Faculty Fellow.

1993: Was keynote speaker at the Brown University Conference on peer tutoring.

1991-94: Held a Broeklundian Professorship at Brooklyn College.

1996: Delivered the University of Memphis Marcus Orr Higher Education Lecture on "Changing Paradigms in College and University Teaching."

1998-2000: Was a New York University Faculty Resource Network Scholar in Residence.

2007: Gave the keynote address at the 25th National Conference on Peer Tutoring and Writing.

2008: The Writing Center Journal issued a special issue on Kenneth Bruffee and the Brooklyn Plan.


In “Building Peer Tutoring Programs in Writing Centers: A Workshop Description and Report,” Paula Gillespie and Harvey Kail attribute the rise in theories concerning collaborative learning since the 1980s with Kenneth Bruffe. Similarly, Irene Ward, in her work Literacy, Ideology, and Dialogue, claims that no one has done more to promote social constructionism and collaborative learning in composition studies than Bruffee (Ward 64). Likewise, in her work, Theorizing Composition, Mary Lynch Kennedy argues that Bruffee and his concept of collaborative theory proved integral in both producing academic commentary on socially constructed knowledge and developing the view of the tutorial as a social transaction in which peers work toward the production of academic discourse (Kennedy 365). In fact, Bruffee was one of the first scholars to start a serious academic conversation about collaborative pedagogy and define its basic principles. He also established the field of writing centers and peer tutoring as a definitive place in the university’s administration.


In his article, “Collaborative Learning in the Classroom: A Guide to Evaluation,” Harvey S. Wiener states that the change in student populations, the growth in the number of nontraditional learners in the collegiate body, the alienating nature of learning in large classrooms with too many students, and the acknowledged decline of freshman entry-level skills in reading, writing, speaking, thinking, and listening created problems for education in the 1970s and 1980s. Such issues, hence, challenged the earlier educational paradigm and shook the faith in conventional teaching strategies (Wiener 56).

As a result, early versions of the writing center developed in order to alleviate the problem; however, the earliest centers were outgrowths of composition classes, employing faculty and graduate assistants as tutors. Worse, though, tutoring sessions became extensions of the classroom and its lectures (Carino 111). In fact, early centers found great resistance from students to the idea of meeting with a faculty member, even in the writing center context. Hence, it was during the 1970s that college professors became increasingly alarmed that students seemed to be having difficulty with the transition into writing at the college-level. Researchers looking into this problem decided that the help being offered to students was too similar to classroom learning. Furthermore, students needed "not an extension of but an alternative to traditional classroom teaching" (Bruffee, “Peer Tutoring,” 86).

As a result, Bruffee and his colleagues adapted peer tutoring to the writing center. Bruffee, in turn, expanded upon his colleagues’ works by analyzing the data obtained by M.L.K. Abercrombie’s research in collaborative learning with medical students. In doing so, Bruffee concluded that: “collaborative learning harnessed the powerful educative force of peer influence that has been - and largely still is – ignored and hence wasted by traditional forms of education” (Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning,” 638). Because instructors found that the practice of collaborative learning does not always work, Bruffee attempted to improve the process by providing instructors with a conceptual rationale derived from social constructionist epistemology - a concept which sees all knowledge as constructed dialogically by groups of socially interacting people (Ward 65). Thus, Bruffee connects dialogue, thought, and knowledge by arguing that it is through these conventions that all knowledge is constructed.


In his essay, "Collaborative Learning and the `Conversation of Mankind’," Kenneth Bruffee states that the idea of collaborative learning came into being thanks to the efforts of British teachers and researchers in the 1950s and 1960s. After studying the interaction of medical students with their teaching physician, researcher M.L.J. Abercrombie concluded that the medical students who learned to make a diagnosis as a group "acquired good medical judgment faster than individuals working alone" (Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning,” 85).

It was from this research, in turn, that Bruffee developed the concept that learning is a social rather than individual process and that learning is not assimilating information but rather a social and collaborative effort to create and maintain knowledge. Indeed, what we know in any field is the result of collaboration among groups of people with shared interests who pool their ideas about their subject, investigate and theorize about it, and pass on their conclusions to be tested, modified, and used by their heirs. For, as Bruffee states: “we establish knowledge or justify beliefs collaboratively by challenging each other’s biases and presuppositions; by negotiating collectively toward new paradigms of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and expressions; and by joining larger, more experienced communities of knowledgeable peers through assenting to those communities’ interests, values, languages, and paradigms of perceptions and thoughts” (Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning,” 646).

In this sense, members are able, by practicing the normal discourse of a particular field, to engage in dialogue or converse with other members of the field even though they are displaced by time and space. Through this dialogic process, in turn, they become participants in the activities that maintain and produce knowledge within various communities.

In his text, Bruffee explains that writing is at the heart of this mode of learning, no matter the discipline, for writing is the way scientists, members of the professions, and academics “construct knowledge in the language of their communities” (Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning,” 54). It is this view of writing as a social activity rather than as a personal one which brings writing, thinking, and dialogue into “constructive” relation. Understanding writing and learning to write in this dialogic sense allows individual’s an active role in their learning process. Furthermore, it puts writing as the center of any curriculum, especially in the composition classroom. Writing, in turn, should not be seen as a one-way message to some distant and unfamiliar audience. Rather, it should be viewed as a dialogue with people. In fact, writing and talking are unavoidably connected. When people write, they are putting their thoughts onto paper. If thought is just conversation internalized, then writing is little more than putting that conversation onto paper (Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning,” 88). Collaborative learning provides a social context where individuals, especially students, can practice conversation and thinking.


Bruffee’s concept of collaborative learning draws heavily on Thomas Kuhn’s concept of "paradigm," Richard Rorty’s "socially justified beliefs," and Clifford Geertz’ focus on "interpretation." In fact, Bruffe utilizes all three notions in his work “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’.”

In his work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, states that "knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all" (Kuhn 3). In fact, Kuhn goes on to explicate that knowledge is not what individuals believe, but rather what social groups and knowledge communities believe. Kuhn, though, does not claim that people do not posses ideas. Rather, he argues that an individual’s ideas are ultimately given meaning by their social context. In that sense, it is the social context of meanings that is epistemologically fundamental, not their ideational content.

Richard Rorty, in his text Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, declares that a necessary truth is merely a statement that nobody has given us any interesting alternatives which would lead us to question it (Rorty 142-3). Thus, Rorty claims that knowledge is the product of knowledge communities, cultures, and subcultures (including academic and professional disciplines) that use, create, and maintain its ongoing discourses and social conversations.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his study of humanity’s evolution of cognitive capabilities, found that cognitive development is essentially a reciprocal and interactive social process. What we call "thought" is actually, in its origins, internalized conversation and social communication. In fact, according to Geertz, human intelligence evolved during the last Ice Age. Geertz bases this hypothesis on the evidence of the rapid development of human brain capacity as well as the beginning evidence of human symbolic activity such as ritual burials. This rapid evolution, in turn, appears to be the development of the capacity for symbolic communication. Therefore, we evolved our large cerebral cortex in order to communicate, with thinking evolving as a necessary element of the communication process. It is for this reason, hence, that Geertz affirms that "Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its form, social in its applications" (Geertz 114).


The proposition that knowledge is ultimately grounded in conversations among members of knowledge communities is present on a much larger level in psychology’s study of Ontogenetic Cognitive Development, especially in the work of the Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky. In his work, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Vygotsky reveals that, from the very earliest stages, knowledge develops in a social context. In fact, Vygotsky and other ontogenetic psychologists claim that, rather than knowledge being something that must be created before it can be communicated, it is more accurate to say that the process of creating and communicating knowledge are inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, ontogenetic psychologists argue that reflective thought is social conversation internalized. We first experience and learn the skill and partnership of conversation in the arena of direct social exchange. Only after developing this skill can we learn to displace it and its partnership by dramatizing and playing out silently within ourselves the role of every participant in the conversation (Vygotsky 114).


Bruffee calls conversation “the origin of thought” and notes that conversation stimulates reflective and critical thinking. Hence, we experience and learn in direct social exchange, with other individual’s perspectives and opinions introducing us to new and deeper ways of seeing something (Bruffee, “Peer Tutoring,” 208).

In his often-reprinted article, “Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind’,” Bruffee emphasizes that peer tutoring enables students to join the "social conversation" that has gone on for centuries. Serving as "a community of knowledgeable peers," tutors initiate fellow students into the codes, values, and assumptions particular to academic disciplines. Indeed, their collaboration leads to the discovery of new thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and expressions. In fact, tutoring, according to Bruffee, provides students with the opportunity to learn and practice the kind of conversation and writing that will benefit them most in the academic community. Furthermore, Bruffee states that by just talking with students about writing, allowing them to practice the academic dialogue, their writing will not only benefit, but they will also enter into the conversation of mankind (Bruffee, “Peer Tutoring,” 215). As Bruffee explains: "the conversation between peer tutor and tutee . . . is structured by the demands of the assignment and by the formal conventions of academic discourse and of standard written English. The tutee brings to the conversation knowledge of the subject to be written about and knowledge of the assignment. The tutor brings to the conversation knowledge of the conventions of discourse and knowledge of standard written English" (Bruffee, "Peer Tutoring,” 10).

Kenneth Bruffee explains that there are two basic, competing models for writing center talk: the monitor model and the collaborative model. The monitor model corresponds to the tutor/tutee relationship prevalent in British schools. The tutor knows the answers and helps the tutee, who doesn't know the answers, to learn them. The other, collaborative model, implies less of a division of power between the client and the writing center consultant. Thus, the collaboration established is that of like-minded peers who, unlike the professor, can provide empathy through common experiences and understanding. This form of tutoring, in which the tutee is encouraged to engage in conversation through commonality, is the strongest and more beneficial because it allows students to master the normal discourse and develop the means to understand and be understood (Bruffee, “Peer Tutoring,” 210).


In his essay, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’,” Kenneth Bruffee suggests that the writing instructor’s tasks are to engage students in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible and ensure that the conversation is similar to the way they would like the students to eventually write. The goal of the instructor, therefore, is to provide context in the classroom in which students can engage in dialogue among themselves and the other discourse communities through reading and writing. More importantly, though, Bruffee argues that the primary task of composition instructors is to teach normal discourse. Normal discourse, hence, includes the conventions, patterns of thought, and agreed upon assumptions that are commonly used by particular groups of people in order to justify beliefs within the author’s community of knowledge peers. Hence, the task of the teacher is to engage students in conversations with each other and to encourage their conversations to sound like normal discourse. This means a conversation which everyone in the discourse community would define as "rational." Furthermore, Bruffee states that the teacher must utilize the equally-important "abnormal" discourse which helps society challenge the authority of knowledge that may be unproductive. Instructors, Bruffee claims, need to teach the tools of normal discourse while at the same time leaving room and permission for abnormal discourse to occur. As Bruffee puts it, instructors must be both "conservators and agents of change."

In this way, the teacher, being an expert in how to think, speak, and write in a discourse community, establishes a collaborative learning environment where the classroom becomes an approximation of the dialogic contexts that students will encounter when they leave school. Hence, students learn by engaging in dialogue with a community of status-equal peers to model the kinds of discourse that is valued by larger society (Ward 68). In fact, Bruffee argues that the student needs to talk about ideas as a way of fostering thoughts and write about ideas as a way of joining the dialogue. Indeed, Bruffe states that the way students speak with each other determines the way they will think about how they will write (Bruffee, “Collaborative Learning,” 642).


In her work, Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications, Anne Ruggles Gere notes that the field of composition continues to rediscover writing groups despite the fact that they have been employed since colonial times (Gere 9). In fact, her text documents a steady stream of scholarship on the subject from 1880 to 1985 (Gere 125-43). It is only recently, though, that writing groups, according to Gere, have become a dominant aspect in not only education, but theory as well. Gere hypothesizes that this rise in domination is due to the fact that writers have become alienated from their audience and language because of composition’s focus primarily on individual writers and the writer’s individuality. Indeed, Gere outlines cultural and historical trends that have led to the common view of writers as solitary individuals who create out of themselves (Gere 62). Collaboration, Gere claims, helps students overcome their alienation from their audience by “reorienting them” toward their readers. In fact, Gere claims that collaborative learning employed in the writing classroom helps students make a fundamental shift in their view of writing away from the stereotype of the isolated genius to a communicative and dialogic view (Gere 68). Gere cites evidence that a significant number of English speakers in the United States suffer from anxiety when it comes to speaking and writing both for and to an audience. Collaborative groups, Gere states, allow students to explore language within a linguistic community whose language habits and skill levels are similar, thereby gaining a new intimacy with language as they talk with others and read aloud (Gere 63).

In her article, "Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center," Andrea Lunsford proposes that knowledge is not outside a person but created through using language in a social context (Lunsford 37). Indeed, Lunsford sees knowledge resulting from conversation, which she claims is at the heart of collaboration. Lunsford also claims that collaboration is the norm in many professions, including engineering, chemistry, psychology, modern language, services management, international city management, and technical communication (Lunsford 37). In fact, according to a Labor Department report cited by Lunsford, the most important skill for laborers is knowing how to work with people who are different from one's self (Lunsford 41). Therefore, Lunsford claims that students ought to master collaborative learning in order to prepare for the workplace. Furthermore, Lunsford asserts that collaboration can only succeed if the collaborative environment and tasks "demand collaboration" and the students, tutors, and teachers devote themselves to the idea itself (Lunsford 39).

While Bruffee does not believe that teachers should define and indentify academic discourse like David Bartholomae claims in his article “Inventing the University,” Bruffee does accord with Bartholomae’s claim that students must invent the university “by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy . . . and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline” (Bartholomae 624). Furthermore, Bruffee and Bartholomae accord that students know something only when they can explain it in writing to the satisfaction of the community of their knowledgeable peers.


The use of collaborative learning can provide multiple benefits. Indeed, Bruffee discovered that peer tutors and tutees working in a collaborative environment deal with higher-order concerns, such as paper focus and development. In fact, tutees feel comfortable enough with peers to bring up higher-level concerns and the writing abilities of the tutors also improve as a direct result of this collaboration.

Likewise, Lunsford states that collaborative learning aids in problem finding and solving, learning abstracts, transferring and assimilating knowledge, fostering interdisciplinary thinking, leading to sharper thinking and deeper understanding of others, engaging the whole student, encouraging active learning, combining reading, talking, writing, and thinking, and allowing for practice in synthetic and analytic skills (Lunsford 38-9).

Researchers like Francine Danis, who closely observed writing groups and analyzed student evaluations, found that 75% of the students in her study correctly identified both major and minor writing problems. Similarly, other research by Anne Gere and Robert Abbott reaffirm the power of peer writing groups to enable students to stay focused on discussions about writing and improve student responses, mainly within grades five through twelve, to content and meaning (Biship 344).


Although collaborative learning has many positive aspects, the concept does present potential problems. As Irene Clark explains in her article, “Collaboration and Ethics in Writing Center Pedagogy,” some scholars adhere to the notion that learning must be an individual process, with writing existing as a solitary activity. This concept, in accordance with the tradition of the humanities, views form, style, and content as the essence of a text written by a student working alone. Similarly, Clark points out that administrators may be suspicious of collaborative learning, with professors viewing collaboration as cheating rather than a social collection of knowledge (Clark 90).

In her article, “Helping Peer Writing Groups Succeed,” Wendy Bishop, like Clark, explicates the drawbacks to collaborative learning by pointing out that the process can be time consuming with the necessary training of group members. However, this problem, according to Bishop, seems to be one of teacher awareness and training rather than an inherent flaw in the method and claims that these issues can be elevated by student and teacher preparation (Bishop 344).

Mary Beaven notes that instructors of collaborative learning are unable to move the class from student- rather than teacher-centered and discussion rather than lecture dominated. Therefore, according to Beaven, instructors end up doing additional work by designing, controlling, directing, and correcting the groups. Also, Francine Danis found that students are not always sure of their group role, aren’t able to stand back from their own writing, are unclear on what they want to learn in a session, and have a reluctance to offer critical comments.


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______. “Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind’.” Writing Center Theory
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