Friday, October 07, 2005

From Clueless

Clueless in Academe is by Gerald Graff, a very professorial-looking tweed-wearing bookshelf-snuggling person judging from his photograph on the back cover. This book came out in 2003.

It's a very attractive book. I like it especially because not only does it define a problem well, it has lots of convincing views on how the problem might be solved, which is extremely reassuring. Most importantly, it is a very well-written book, a book written by someone who knows how to argue (which is not coincidental, given the book's premise) and deploy graceful rhetorical flourishes with great effect. I particularly admire the use of lists (an example follows), and the use of catchy phrases that encapsulate his points ("mixed-message curriculum," "Volleyball Effect"). Very tidy.

Here's a nice list of "standard academic practices that often seem second nature to teachers and A-students but come across to many students as bizarre, counterintuitive, or downright nonsensical" (44) This is all imperfectly quoted or paraphrased, by the way; for authenticity, take a look at the actual book please, it's published by R.R. Donnelley and Sons. My own observations are in italics:

1. The Problem Problem. Academic assignments ask students not only to become aggressive know-it-alls, but to cultivate problems to an extent that seems perverse or bizarre. A fixation on seemingly superfluous problems.I see this all the time. Students are nonplussed when asked to come up with a thesis paragraph for a paper--it's the biggest struggle of the whole semester and often a lost cause. I find Professor G's remarks here offer lots of insights into the nature and causes of this great drama.

2. Negativism and Oppositionality. To make a "case" for yourself, to make statements that are "arguable," you must be oppositional and defensive, if not cantankerous. Furthermore, the value academia places on making "arguable" statements can seem not only needlessly embattled, but flatly illogical. Why would any sane person go out of his or her way to say things that are "arguable"? It seems like bad manners to contest this, so I will politely murmur, "mmm." There are some real gems embedded in this part of the chapter, little chuckle-inducing passages. Read the book, I'm not going to type them out.

3. Persuasion as Aggression. When the academic penchant for problematizing and negativity goes unexplained, the intellectual energy expended on academic tasks tends naturally to look like mere aggression rather than reasonable behavior....This student attitude toward persuasion is tied up with a deeper refusal to become the sort of public self that schooling assumes we all want to be. Yes, that's interesting. Blogs are a symptom of this. Lots of people write blogs to proclaim their views and don't mind putting their names to them; but a lot of people don't. Even those who do might not be so willing to do so if it involved, say, posting it all conspicuously where they live or work--or somewhere else where they could easily be confronted or challenged with it. Bumper stickers are popular, of course, even quite strident ones sometimes, but most of the time one is driving away from that confederate flag or F the president sticker, and those weird magnetic ribbons are seldom even legible. (I was going to put the Macintosh apple thing on my car but couldn't decide where to put it pathetic, really).

4. Elaborated Codes [The] seemingly superfluous degree of self-explanation and elaboration [of academic intellectual discourse] especially when we compare that discourse with casual conversation...Novice writers often have trouble generating much quantity of text, since to unpack and elaborate on their points would make them feel they are laboring the obvious. Yup, okay. That does explain a lot of recurring problems.

The above is from Chapter 2.

So that's the post for today. I will try to return to this later.