Volume 21, Number 3, Autumn 2004

Margaret Procter


University of Toronto















"Disappointingly, though, given his experience in Chicago, Graff's depiction of student culture is nearly monolithic."






































"For someone who can split hairs about the nuances of public discourse and become passionate about the aims of literary interpretation, Graff is oddly uncritical in his choice of examples."


























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Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

The title of Gerald Graff’s book put me off at first—I don’t need to hear more complaints about students. Having read a review in University Affairs that focussed on what Graff had to say about writing, I picked it up anyway. I can report that it’s not about how dumb students are these days, nor (in spite of its subtitle) is it a repeat of the Boyer report on how universities fail to educate them. It’s not entirely about teaching writing either, though a chapter is titled “Unlearning to Write,” and Graff speaks from his experience in English classrooms and university administration. Its topic is the apparent gap between academic culture and popular culture in the US, and the actual and potential connections. Clueless in Academe is always a lively and engaging piece of writing. Graff’s personal voice and his running reviews of current publications on academic culture kept me interested if not always convinced.

In 1992 Graff published Beyond the Culture Wars to suggest a way of bypassing the debates about the canon that he felt handicapped English programs. He said there that students should be brought into the debate about whether English studies should stick with the canonical classics or bring in more popular current works. In the current book he says that the need is to get students involved with any kind of debate. It’s the weak or ambiguous place of open argumentative discourse in American life that bothers Graff and that he tries to address in terms of what universities can teach.

Many of his 14 chapters have been published previously as articles in journals such as the MLA Profession or College English. Some were clearly once reviews of specific works, others editorials about classic issues like the use of jargon in academic publications, and others accounts of current issues such as training public intellectuals in a new Masters program in the humanities. For Clueless in Academe Graff groups the new and reworked pieces into four sections, starting with an overview of the relationship between popular and academic culture, moving into his analysis of specific components of public discourse and of academe (including writing instruction), and ending with an array of classroom stories that address some specific issues described previously. The chapters overlap considerably, making the same arguments from slightly different starting points. I found that a chapter or two at a time was enough, and that some repaid close reading more than others.

The first sections of the book depict student cluelessness as a product of the ambivalences and self-contradictions in both academic and popular culture. Graff’s anecdotal examples are clearly based on wide observation; his analyses chime with other recent studies of academic culture, which he cites and summarizes extensively. They also ring true to my experience and observation, though I can’t help noting their limitations. Graff depicts individual students unable to engage in oral or written discussion with energy or depth because they don’t see any point in comparing two poems or finding the deeper meaning in a novel. That’s all too familiar. His snapshots of the covers for Cliff’s Notes on The Color Purple and The Joy Luck Club memorably illustrate his point that students are still alienated from the new canon of popular literature. I can fill in too that some students fake assigned personal narratives, not to mention reading journals. Graff’s chapter on students’ admission statements for graduate school derives from his experience as director of a new Masters program at the University of Chicago, where he saw letters stating enthusiasm but neglecting to show any sense of academic issues. Some of my students must have applied there. Disappointingly, though, given his experience in Chicago, Graff’s depiction of student culture is nearly monolithic. He mentions a successful academic who was exposed to theological argument in his Christian fundamentalist upbringing, but doesn’t describe current students with strong religious commitments. He cites Labov on black language, but only one of his teaching situations concerns black students (seen as immersed in generic “youth culture”); none mention ESL learners or international students. He states that social class is a factor in student resistance and in understanding the need to be explicit, but neglects to say or show much about it. Graff refers to his own teenage engagement as a sports fan, and generalizes that teenage boys’ discussions comparing sports stars exemplify argumentation that can develop into the academic form. Would that work also for consumer talk about cultural products?

Similarly, I am entertained and stimulated by Graff’s discussion of academic writing, though my problems aren’t all solved. The chapter on “Unlearning to Write” is about academics’ use of obscurantist style more than about student problems. This is familiar territory, but Graff’s view is fresh. He points out that much of the best academic writing is actually readable, and he quotes a few passages that exemplify the combination of colloquial energy with subtle analysis. Graff claims that interdisciplinary viewpoints have replaced specialist research paradigms, and he summarizes a study about the “journalization” of academic criticism, listing a half-page of academic books based on personal narrative. His many allusions have stocked my “to-read” list with several years’ worth of books in the humanities and social sciences. Graff also asserts that media analysis and academic analysis of current events overlap, borrowing from each other’s methods. He gives convincing evidence that the public intellectual is alive and well and on TV tonight as well as on library shelves. His best examples uncover ambivalent attitudes towards intellectualism. He outlines Deborah Tannen’s explicit rejection of the “argument culture” in a book that exemplifies it, laments Jane Tompkin’s turn to transcendental meditation in preference to showoff academic performances, comments on a song by Bob Dylan where the singer evaluates his girlfriend’s lack of judgementalism, and quotes appreciatively from a Monty Python skit called “The Argument Clinic” (though without noting that it’s British).

How are we to apply this perspective to teaching? The final chapters string together nuggets of teaching practice as encouragement that we can solve the dilemmas outlined in the rest of the book. I found these disappointingly narrow in scope, unequal to the range of analysis in the earlier chapters. Most are about composition teachers. For someone who can split hairs about the nuances of public discourse and become passionate about the aims of literary interpretation, Graff is oddly uncritical in his choice of examples. He does point out that one teacher who restates his students’ ideas in highly abstract terms is just demonstrating his own superiority. But a story about getting a student interested only in motorcycles to research the sociology of biker culture is so familiar a success as to seem clichéd. Guiding students to choose composition topics from “what they know well” hardly seems original either, though it’s encouraging to see that another teacher also values papers based on personal interviews rather than always requiring library research. A Texas high school teacher and his students drill each other in using words from student “Realspeak” and from the SAT/ACT word list: amusing contrasts, yes, but surely Graff could say something about the impact on schooling of standardized testing. His final chapter is an enthusiastic but balanced review of Deborah Meier’s book about transforming a Harlem high school that goes some distance to restore the breadth of perspective. Graff also cites several books on teaching composition, including Andrea Lunsford’s textbook Everything’s an Argument and Joseph Harris’s memoir A Teaching Subject. They go on my to-read list too. But why doesn’t he mention more university examples, more examples from experiments in teaching writing across the disciplines, more examples from subjects other than English? They would be a huge support for his point that argumentative skill is the key to the “club” of academic success and public discourse.

I marked several passages defining argumentation and discussing ways to teach it, which I’ll try out with students and teachers in various areas, including the sciences. Graff has lots to say about the ways we usually teach. His list on page 29 of the mixed messages that academics give students hits home: “Be yourself, but do it the way we academics do,” and “There are no right answers, only endless questions; but some answers are better than others and some don’t even qualify to get on the map.” Chapter 2 usefully enumerates the oddities of academic discourse, reminding academics, for instance, that we always expect aggression and negativity as part of persuasion. He notes the dual meanings of our term “argue” (sometimes simply state a proposition, sometimes outline a contention) and our unexplained assumptions about the need to use elaborated code where things are stated and explained rather than the restricted code of face-to-face conversation where knowledge is assumed. I wish he had said more about when and how we make that choice, a particular challenge for science students and for international students.

Graff’s own teaching skills are no doubt exemplary. One of his maxims is “Dare to be reductive.” He follows it impressively himself in defining the skills students need to enter academic culture and public discourse. A commitment to articulating ideas in public, he says, requires you to “listen closely to others, summarize them in a recognizable way, and make your own relevant argument.” (Yes, he cites the passage from Kenneth Burke about entering a parlour where the conversation is in full swing, though for some reason he says it’s a cocktail party.) Several times in the book Graff mentions that he and his wife Cathy Birkenstein-Graff are developing a handbook as companion to this book, to be called A Short Guide to Argument. I’ll watch for it. Samples of their advice are included in Clueless, including what Graff calls “template sentences” to indicate the rhetorical moves involved in argument. Graff says that it’s worth the risk of reductivism to ask students to include sentences like these in their writing: “To put the point another way…,” “Here you will probably object that….,” or “Of course I don’t mean to suggest that….” It occurs to me we could ask students to find such sentences in what they read, then imitate or even parody them in their own work. The book ends with a two-page epilogue, “How to Write an Argument: What Students and Teachers Really Need to Know.” It includes several of the template sentences—enough to require choice rather than seeming like a formula for organizing a paper—and standard advice like imagining a reader who keeps saying “so what?” and “who cares?” Graff tells students to be bilingual so that they can try out their ideas in both an academic voice and a nonacademic one to see if they still make sense. His own writing certainly passes that test, though his advice doesn’t match the sweep of his analysis.

Margaret Procter
University of Toronto


3 Poems by Carl Leggo