Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind
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About the Author
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Graff is an English professor, formerly of the University of Chicago and now at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He gained some fame in the early 1990s for arguing against his then-U. Chicago colleague Allan Bloom's understanding of Western culture. In this book, Graff looks into the great chasm between students and teachers and finds on one side Arguespeak, the language of teachers, and, on the other side, Studentspeak, the language of everyone else. Arguespeak consists of looking at particular aspects of a subject matter critically, in light of what one knows about the whole field. Studentspeak makes itself heard whenever people talk about everyday things: friends, food, movies, work, video games, t.v. shows, and so on. Problems arise when teachers want to hear Arguespeak from their students but only get Studentspeak. Graff's book offers concrete ways to help teachers teach their language to students.
The main obstacle to understanding Arguespeak is that every critical comment uttered by a teacher is made within a larger conversation about a topic or subject. Teachers make their judgements about, say, the historical significance of the Magna Carta, or Twain's sense of irony, based on their knowledge of what others in their field have to say about these issues. Students rarely know how to formulate such judgements because they are unaware of the conversation their teacher is participating in. They are clueless.
But, their teachers are just as clueless about helping them. Graff draws on the work of several education theorists and compositionists (writing instructors) to offer a commonsense way to align the expectations of students and teachers without sacrificing achievement. First, teachers must not feel compelled to teach everything--better to teach a fewer number of topics in depth rather than treat the whole range of a subject like a giant slalom course. Graff would rather see teachers spend more time teaching their students to think. Second, teachers must show students how to enter the critical conversation of their subject by having them practice with the conversations they participate in all the time. Everyone has an opinion about something; everyone has a topic they can think critically about. Graff recommends using what kids already know, especially with regard to popular culture, in class to develop their critical faculties. Graff offers concrete ways to integrate students' nonacademic interests with their academic responsibilities and get them on the road to expressing their opinions in academically useful ways. Following these measures in combination with the regular study of the humanities, math, and sciences bridges the gap between the students' way of thinking and their teachers' way of thinking. To make things very clear, Graff even offers a template for writing the standard five-paragraph critical essay. While some may find this objectionable, I agree with Graff that this kind of essay is a valuable pedagogical exercise. The student doesn't sacrifice any originality if he's given a structure within which to operate because he still has to come up with his own ideas about the topic itself. I look forward to using it in my own classes this year and expect that this template will free up the students to express their ideas in a more critical and engaging manner.
I can't overemphasize this book's practicality. At all points, Graff has his eye on what actually goes on in the classroom, on what the students are actually thinking about and working on. I am certain that teachers, especially at the high school and college levels, and parents will value his insights.
in Academe" because Graff nowhere talks about the material side of what Randy Martin calls the "managed university". Graff wants to build a better mouse trap to persuade more people to take "life of the mind stuff" more seriously, but nowhere does he say how and at what levels his project should be funded; and I'm coming to realize that it doesn't matter what mouse trap you have on paper or even experiment with on a small scale in your own classrooms--it won't go national (or even get beyond one's own school) unless it's perceived as something of worth; and here actions speak louder than words: it will only be perceived as something of worth if students and teachers know that it's being funded at a level that allows teachers to fully invest themselves in their jobs--because the institution is fully investing in them to do a good job by paying them a liveable wage that makes it unnecessary for them to moonlight and cut corners to free up time for that other "night" job, in my case translation work. It is a significant omission as I see it that Graff has no chapter such as "Penniless in Academe" or "Money Matters" that would address these basic issues, nor any index entry for "professor salaries," "wages," "money," and certainly none for that recent coinage "casualization". This ultimately leaves Graff up there in the high altitude superstructure: a superstar talking to other superstars despite the number of times he stoops to include student voices, "compositionist" voices, and other vernacular-speaking subalterns within the grand design of his "arguespeak". This exposes Graff to the "performative contradiction" (p. 89 in reference to D. Tannen) that is his own favorite "gotcha" technique for outing his opponents (and demonstrating that they are already halfway towards agreeing with him): Graff is himself an example of what he is talking about: "clueless in academe". But at least Graff, like the author of the recently reprinted manifesto on "bs", has gone further than most at diagnosing the problem. Now I am just saying, "Professoriat, heal thyself." I am glad to see that a broad array of plaintiffs are stepping up to sue the Department of Education over the federal mandates in the "No Child Left Behind" legislation that come with no accompanying funding: a sign that not everyone is "clueless" when it comes to the fundamental correlation between matter and spirit, between more money and at least "better" student writing.