Brufee & McAndrew


In the “black box” of your mind, you think…  therefore you are.  Your individual mind is the matrix of all thought, and you can produce great ideas all by yourself.  For you, knowledge has a universal foundation upon what you know is built, and by which your own knowledge is assured of its certainty or truth.  And yet, there are problems with this knowledge.  Most of it is unattainable, mysterious.  Try as you might, you just can’t see it all.

So goes the usual, cognitive-based conception of thought, knowledge, and reality.  If it feels familiar to you, then you, like many of your academic peers and superiors, do not hold a social constructionist view.  Yet the view of a social constructionist is the view we as academics must adopt if we want to challenge tradition and step into modernity, according to Kenneth A. Bruffee.

In Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Bibliographical Essay, Bruffee quotes philosopher Thomas Kuhn: Knowledge is “intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all.”  This is the basis of social constructionism.  The social constructionist says “reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts, selves, and so on are constructs generated by communities of like-minded peers,” according to Bruffee.  All that we know was collectively constructed, not based off a single foundation, or formulated in a single mind.  We have open access to knowledge and reality, and we can also contribute to it.

Cognitive, epistemology-concerned perception of knowledge is not language-centered.  Instead, it “places language on the margin of knowledge as a mere medium or conduit– a set of ‘skills’ by which ‘ideas’ are ‘communicated’ or ‘transmitted’ from one individual mind to another.”  But we know from Walter Ong that language constitutes our human consciousness.  It is internal, rather than an external currency to exchange.  Knowledge and language are inseparable, according to the social constructionist.  Reading and writing, two mediums of language exchange, are central to education.

In composition education, reading and writing take center stage.  Social constructionism is the spotlight.  Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide for Conferences by Donald A. McAndrew and Thomas J. Reigstad begins telling us what to remember as we tutor a student’s writing: “Even when a writer might seem to be writing alone, she is still connected to others because she thinks of the audience to whom she writes, and she thinks of what she has read, heard, said, and written previously.”

We should look at tutoring as a social interaction between tutor and tutee, and all the works of writing that have influenced both.  When we do this, the dialogue of our tutoring session “takes place in the wider context of language and culture,” say McAndrew and Reigstad.

Now knowing about social constructionism and its place in the tutoring session, I cannot underestimate what kind of importance the seemingly insignificant writings I read and do in school might have in the social dialogue of thought, knowledge, and reality.  I think that if a tutor places this kind of importance on their student’s work, the student will do the same.  It benefits both the tutor and student to think of a work as a continuation of the creation of knowledge, of reality.

How isolating writing and even pensive thought used to seem to me was changed by these readings.  I realize that thoughts that seem private to my own mind were shaped by influences and stimulus around me.  Nothing is purely original, but derived from something social.  Yet in my mind, and while I write, it sometimes feels like I’m the only human on the planet.

I don’t know whether to feel empowered or belittled by the thought of a socially constructed reality.  Behind me, there are  brilliant words and thoughts guiding me.  Above me leer authorities that say nothing I create is my own.  Social constructivism may have a place in the tutoring session, but it will be a while before it takes a place in the core of my beliefs.








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