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

Graff CluelessThis is, basically, an excellent book. Make a gift of it to those you know who are decision makers in departments. Read it if you want to help make things better for your students. More for those who want details, as well as my reflections on a few of the things I learned reading it, but for most of you who are teaching in departments (in Korea) where students actually have enough English to learn, you know, academic stuff, or for those teaching in the mother tongue of their students: trust me! Order it! Go! Now! University EFL teachers in Korea, you may wish to read on, as some of Graff’s lessons are applicable in your classrooms, too, but you’re not exactly the target audience, and a lot of the book is about stuff much higher up the scale than most of you can get at in English conversation courses. 

This book is for anyone who’s doing any teaching, or for someone entering grad school and wanting to know what the hell it is he or she has gotten himself into. (I’d like to say it’d be great for high school students, to get more out of university, but I think Graff’s own indictment of education as it is makes it realistic to think this book probably inaccessible to most high schoolers.)

Meanwhile, I would like to think that if this book were translated into Korean and even five or ten percent of the professors who haven’t thought about the issues Graff discusses, started to do so, and approached those issues in a new way — whether the ones Graff suggests, or other ways — the quality of education in Korea (a very common concern here) would improve dramatically.

The introduction to the book begins:

This book is an attempt by an academic to look at academia from the perspective of those who don’t get it. Its subject is cluelessness, the bafflement, usually accompanied by shame and resentment, felt by students, the general public, and even many academics in the face of the impenetrability of the academic world. It examines some overlooked ways in which schools and colleges themselves reinforce cluelessness and thus perpetuate the misconceptions that the life of the mind is a secret society for which only an elite few qualify.

Graff’s basic point is: regardless of what University looks like — and presents itself as — intellectual life is not alien to culture in general, and in fact it’s the divisions that scholars, students, and the public place between Popular Culture and Intellectual Culture that result in the division, and deepen the divide — to the detriment of both.

The book is, simply put, a basic exploration of those themes, asking at every step of the way how it is that people perceive academic life this or that way, whether it is reasonable given how education or teaching is often performed, how it can be changed, and how teachers ought to change it — and why all of this is important.

If you’ve ever wondered why students can get into passionate debates about which professor is the toughest, but can’t seem to find a topic that interests them for their midterm paper; if you’ve ever wondered why students seem so mystified at the workings of academic discussion, why they have no idea what to do with quotes, why everything they do seems so often to be a case of jumping through hoops, even when you’re fighting like hell to get them to just care a little about the ideas at hand; if you’ve ever found yourself feeling a vague twinge of guilt at having resigned yourself to teaching to the top 10% or 20% or 30% of the class; if you’ve ever wondered what you cando as a teacher to break this messy cycle, and get students interested in learning for learning’s sake, to introduce them to the Life of the Mind, and get them to consider this big exercise of university — so commonly considered a way of getting a better job — as something more than just a career investment, but the foundation of their intellectual being, their intellectual lives and citizenship and engagement with the ideas that are, now more than ever, crucial to the world they live in, then this is a book worth checking out.

Particularly interesting to me was Graff’s discussion of Deborah Meier’s “Progressive Transitionalism” — basically, her idea (and implementation) of “school culture.” Meier served at principal at a couple of schools in the US which were ailing, at which students were not learning, until she took the helm and turned things around by creating an atmosphere where academic interaction — debate, argument, discussion, and the like — were foregrounded. Debate, indeed, was on a par with sports, and the school(s) was set up in such a way that students were encouraged to come at things with the assumption not that they “had” to do it (for school, because the teacher says so), but that ideas should be grappled with in a broad set of ways — examining evidence, asking certain sorts of questions, creating theories, debating theories, and so on — for a variety of reasons. Utility could rage from personal interest, to economic of career utility, to grand-scale, big picture importance.

I couldn’t help but relate this to the department at which I am teaching right now, which is, uncharacteristically for foreign teachers in Korea, full of students with a high level of speaking ability, and in many cases a relative facility with ideas being discussed. They can handle, if not initiate, sophisticated discussions of, say, films, or a debate on an issue that they care about. But why don’t they initiate? Why don’t they care about academic things? Why do they choose to make presentations with no thesis, or on topics that they obviously couldn’t care less about?

My department has been having students deliver a lecture in their third year, as a prerequisite for graduation. This reminds me very much of the recitals that students were required to perform in the music department where I did my undergraduate studies in music. Students — all students, even theory composition majors — were required to present whatever they were doing every year after the first. Sophomores had to do a minimum of ten minutes. The minimum was increased to thirty minutes in the junior year, and an hour for seniors. My students, I have to say, have it easy being required a mere ten minute lecture in English in their third year. It’s not so much a lecture as a speech. But in any case, there is another interesting parallel.

Students in the music department where I studied in general attended recitals quite regularly. In the first year or two, they did this because it was required, and they could fail the year’s required recital-attendance course (a 0-credit course) if they skipped too many. However, by the time we got to junior and senior year, we were going to recitals because we — many of us, anyway, most of the time — were eager to see how our peers did. Yes, to see the people we didn’t like flub, but also to see our friends excel; to see the people a year ahead of kick ass, and (groan) raise the bar for the rest of us. It was painful but also beautiful and exciting, and it mattered to many of us, much more than we might have imagined had someone forecast that to us in our freshman year.

In contrast, the attendance at the required 3rd year “speech contests,” which are held a mere three or four times a year — not thrice-weekly, as the recitals at my university were — are depressingly low. Often, there is only a handful of people not directly involved in the day’s speeches in attendance. Of course, given that the speeches are crammed together, the professors — myself included — have gone along with the necessity to split the speech event into two days, and have half the profs attend the first day, and the rest the next.

There are two problems with this — one of which I’ve helped resolve, the other of which I’m dubious will get resolved, though I’ll try contribute my little bit.

The first problem is that, because students don’t see the other students’ presentations, they don’t see their peers and seniors excel or flub. They gave nothing to gauge their expectations against, so they prepare in a void, not really sure what they’re supposed to be doing. Some of them are very bright, very able people, but since they don’t know what they’re meant to do, they stand up and deliver the most inappropriate things, and fail — having to repeat the experience only a few months later, with the same confusion evident in their second, third, and even in some cases their fourth attempt.

This problem has been solved by a change in department policy, whereby students are required to attend all department events for a tiny fraction of their course grade. This might not work in a Canadian university, where people are slightly less worried about losing a few marks off the top, but in a Korean university, where grades are a major focus, this is all but a guarantee of mass attendance for all department members. Students will see their peers presenting, bursting into tears, forgetting their memorized scripts, and other peers making powerful presentations, masterful arguments, tidy and effectively unpacking their arguments and laying them out for all to see. They will see how their peers respond to questions after each speech, and they will have some idea what flies, and what crashes and bursts into flames.

But there’s one more element missing, and that is that we, as teachers, are not modeling for our students what they need to do. Of course, we’re lecturing in class — because it’s our job, because students have to be lectured — but we’re not initiating them into the thoroughly academic process of giving speeches and presentations to audiences of people not connected to any course or class. I remember, as an undergrad and a grad student alike, attending various lectures, readings, recitals, and debates not connected with any of my courses. I, a creative writing student, for heaven’s sakes, saw Stephen Pinker and Roger Penrose lecture at McGill – I saw them wrestle with impromptu questions from the audience, and saw audience members debating things said in their answers afterwards; I saw Indian and Tibetan musicians perform in Saskatoon, and attended literary readings before I was ever interested in studying literature. I was initiated into the life of the mind in a setting where the whole world was set out in front of me, amazing, interesting, full of people very seriously — but joyfully, excitedly — engaging with ideas, problems, questions, and issues.

We might not be able to get a whole series of guest lecturers lined up, but — if our teaching loads were a little less crammed, anyway, and if the Korean professors’ administrative chores were a little less over the top — we would have a number of people who could give short lectures (of 20-30 minutes, say) to our students. It wouldn’t always have to be about serious things. For example, I’m thinking of suggesting I could give the same talk I’ll be giving in Fukuoka this September, that is, on examining 21st century SF films in Korea culturally and generically to see why the genre has generally not caught on here.

Then again, I’ve been pushing for us to require attendance at the speech contests since the first one, a little less thn two years ago. I have six months more here, and I’m not sure it’s worth it to try push for professors to take on another duty. But it seems very clear to me — even more, now — that this is exactly what we would need to do, to have a series of interesting, engaging occasional lectures in English, on various topics of interest to the people lecturing — because this is a kind of modeling for students, too, on how one should pursue intellectually one’s interests — in our department so that students could bereally, actively initiated into the life of the mind.

But this is not a change I think I’ll be able to help bring about in a mere six months. I may point it out, though, and offer to start the ball rolling. Realistically, going back to my music department, it was a very rare occasion when any of our professors performed within the department, too; so much so that when the department’s early music historian, Walter Kreyszig, performed flute in some concert in the department, everyone was suddenly quite interested and curious. Really, in a proper department that was trying to push us to excel, more of our applied instrument instructors would have been giving performances themselves; theorists would have given lectures on this or that aspect of theory, and historians would have lectured on history outside of class, on occasion. The only people who did anything of the sort, though, were… you got it: the composition professors, who were always pushing for composition festivals, composition recitals, anything that would get new music played, and interested in new music aroused. The apathy and stagnation outside of the composers’ classrooms, though, resisted. So it’s not just Korean universities — it’s a widespread problem, and maybe part of the whole, “We’ll we’re not Ivy League [/Toronto/a S.K.Y. University), so why bother?” mentality.

Still, the not-S.K.Y. mentality seems more profound, and more damaging, here, so I think this book should be translated into Korean, if it hasn’t already been. I have a feeling that the “Initiation into the Life of the Mind” process exists in some universities, or at least in some departments within certain universities — from things I’ve heard people say, but from where I stand, I think students and departments could stand benefit a great deal if this approach were to be expanded radically. It’d shock some professors, but I have a feeling other Korean profs have the same twinges of guilt or disappointment in the failings they see among their students, knowing some of it does relate back to how teaching in general has been done here for so long. (Which is a lot like how it was done in the West a few generations ago.)

One more thing: the Epilogue to this book (“How to Write an Argument”) is an excellent handout for students in composition courses. It pretty much makes clear the pitfalls students make when writing. It’ll take some unpacking for any (but especially Korean) students, but it’s a great, great handful of tips and considerations for students trying to figure out how the hell to write an argument in an academic fashion.

2 thoughts on “Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind by Gerald Graff

  1. Thank you for your flattering and discerning comment on my *Clueless in Academe*. I wonder if you know the how-to-do-it companion co-written with my wife Cathy Birkenstein: *They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing* (W. W. Norton), published in 2006.
    Best,
    Gerald Graff

    1. Dear Prof. Graff,

      Thanks! I really did enjoy the book, and it helped me a lot conceptually, though of course I had to reconfigure a lot of the ideas to a TEFL setting. (When I read it, I was teaching Korean English Lit/Language & Culture students with intermediate-to-high-level English ability, who (in the typical manner in Korea) were getting their first really serious writing instruction in English. (It boggles the mind, but that’s a common situation here.) Therefore I had to retool a lot of things for that particular type of learner. For that reason, I wonder how much They Say/I Say would be directly useable—especially now that I’m teaching much lower-level students. That said, I think I’ll try order a copy of the book for the university library and see if I can apply some of it.

      I’ll add that I think the concepts in your book are especially applicable to TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), and even more so in Korea, where it’s downright common for instructors (both foreign and Korean English teachers alike) to complain about how bad their students’ English is while never thinking to address those kinds of errors in any formal way. While modern language-instruction techniques make that harder to get away with, those with little acquaintance with recent language pedagogy (either the Koreans, because mainstream language education is decades behind here, or the foreign teachers, many of whom have no formal training in language teaching) aren’t helped.

      I think a TEFL-specific adaptation of these ideas would be an excellent project. Not necessarily one I have time for myself, though!

      By the way, I took the liberty of moving your comment to the related post, as it ended up being attached to an unrelated post somehow. Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for such a good book. IT really did help me out a lot when I was struggling at trying to figure out how to be a better and more efficient instructor for my students.

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