Academic journal article College English

Collaboration (in) Theory: Reworking the Social Turn's Conversational Imperative

Academic journal article College English

Collaboration (in) Theory: Reworking the Social Turn's Conversational Imperative

Article excerpt

In his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From, the popular science writer Steven Johnson takes what he calls a "long-zoom" (21) approach to iden- tify patterns that emerge when individual cases of innovation are examined macroscopically. One of these patterns, what he calls "the adjacent possible" (31), suggests that good ideas are never the product of isolated moments of creativ- ity. Even if we credit a certain breakthrough or invention to a particular individual, there is always an environment in which that individual is just a part, an environ- ment that both fuels and constrains what one can invent. To understand how good ideas become good ideas, in other words, we have to understand the ecology out of which they develop; or, as Johnson advises, "The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts" (42). According to the adjacent possible, for instance, you must "figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you" (41). In fact, with virtually every pattern he identi- fies, Johnson always returns to a similar observation: the best ideas are always the product of collaboration.

For many teachers and theorists of writing, this principle is a familiar one. When Kenneth Bruffee published "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'" in College English three decades ago, the potential for welcoming the idea of collaboration into English's professional discourses was rich with possibil- ity. Indeed, for the next two decades, discussion about the pedagogical applications for collaboration became commonplace, especially among compositionists. What did not surface, however, were competing theories about what collaboration is and how it works. Instead, Bruffee's explanation of collaboration as a manifestation of "conversation" quickly became the default metaphor scholars invoked to explain the nature of collaboration itself. This conflation of collaboration with conversation mirrors the meteoric rise of social constructionist epistemology in English studies and is the source of what I call the social turn's conversational imperative, a concept I expand upon momentarily.

One of the long-term consequences of conflating collaboration with conversation is found in our discipline's various assertions that all writing is collaborative. As Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford explain in "Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship," for example, "The socially constructed nature of writing-its inherently collaborative foundation-functions as an enthymatic grounding for much contemporary research in the discipline" (355). In this vein, Charlotte Thralls employs Mikhail Bakhtin to claim that all writing, "whether authored by individuals or groups, is collaborative" (79), while James Reither and Douglas Vipond argue that to imagine "writing as a collaborative process gives us more precise ways to consider what writers do when they write, not just with their texts, but also with their language, their personae, their readers" (856). For Jeanette Harris, that all writing is collaborative is "an as- sertion that cannot be dismissed lightly" (77). In sum, notes Maureen Daly Goggin, "[C]ollaboration signifies not only the phenomenon of two or more authors work- ing on a single project but also extends to the view that all writing is collaborative" (35). These claims similarly suggest that the social dimension of writing can be understood in terms of collaboration, yet it is hard to discern just how the idea of collaboration itself is supposed to unite, even if only tentatively, the many different ways the social dimension of writing can be explored theoretically. As a critical term in writing studies, collaboration has consequently assumed a catchall status that allows theorists and practitioners to deploy it in decidedly uncritical ways. To call something "collaborative" is tantamount to saying nothing particular at all, except perhaps that two or more people have worked together in some capacity. …

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