Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind by Gerald Graff

Graff, Gerald.  Clueless in Academe:  How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.  New Haven:  Yale U P, 2003.  Print.

Despite Graff’s best efforts, Clueless in Academe still reads like what essentially it is, a collection of his essays from the previous decade, rather than a unified text and coherent book-length argument about how educational institutions, especially colleges and universities, could better develop student potential for argumentation and intellectual inquiry.  Nevertheless, the book and its diversity of material provide many useful ideas.

One of Graff’s most important ideas is that students need to see models of the intellectual discourse that they are supposed to produce.  He cites the experience of a college English instructor who found that students wrote better essays when they read not only literature but also criticism about that literature (163).  Though Graff is careful to note that students cannot just be given any criticism as some will be just too far-removed from their understanding (174), he makes a strong case for providing better models for student writing.  It is surprising that this pedagogical approach is so rare.  Would a baseball coach make her or his players watch tennis matches and then expect they would be able to be better baseball players as a result?  Hey, both sports involve balls and hitting them with modified sticks, right?  Yet, such mismatches happen a lot in education.  Many instructors have students read stories but want them to write essays, a different type of writing.  If, as instructors, we want students to produce a certain genre or type of writing, then we would be wise to show them some models of it first.  Otherwise, students are left essentially on their own to create a genre, and, in most cases, they don’t succeed.

To help students along in learning academic genres, Graff proposes another important idea, that of the template, an idea that he developed further with books such as They Say/I Say:  The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.  Basically, to help students make academic arguments, Graff suggests having the students fill out templates such as “Whereas X argues that . . . , I contend that . . .” (169).  Otherwise, he notes, “These moves seem disarmingly simple, but they are often hellishly perplexing for inexperienced writers” (168-69).  The templates make the necessary moves utterly transparent.  Much of academic writing is formulaic; Graff suggests we embrace that aspect, so students can concentrate on content and enter the academic conversation.

And entering a conversation is ultimately what Graff and most instructors want students to be able to do.  In fact, Graff’s endorsement of using topics that students are interested in to teach students the conventions and methods of academic inquiry (226) supports the Stage I Ursuline Studies anchors approach to research, in which students pick a personal topic to research.  In those courses, the goal is to teach college-level research; the topic doesn't matter so why not let it be something that would engage a student?  Then, once students have the skills, those same skills can be employed throughout the curriculum, whether the student has an initial interest in the topic or not. 

Other useful bits of the book include a handy explanation to students about how and why to use quotations in academic writing (241-42) and an epilogue that instructs students and teachers in how to write an argument (275-77).  Given how Graff bounces around ideawise in the book, he might want to follow some of his own advice.  For that reason, I wouldn't suggest reading the book straight through; instead, bounce around yourself, according to your interest.  Graff has many good ideas in these essays.   

The book is available through OhioLINK.

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