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  • Clueless about Class in Academe
  • Sharon O’Dair (bio)

Gerald Graff is “eternally optimistic.” So says Shirley Brice Heath in her review of Clueless in Academe. This optimism accounts for his focus in Clueless, which aims not toward “wide-sweeping structural changes in universities (or any schooling, for that matter)” but toward “the small manners” that might make a difference in professors’ and students’ lives—the “promise of having students learn to write across genres,” for example, or of bringing “their understanding of popular culture into classrooms” in order to mimic more readily what Graff inelegantly calls the academy’s “arguespeak.” Manners, of course, do make a difference in social life and, according to Jane Tompkins, Graff’s allow him “to imagine a curriculum where we all argue with each other constantly, and our students do the same…[but] without doing harm” (2003a, 251). Tompkins thinks Graff just doesn’t see “the dark side of human nature that conflict taps into…the pale ire, envy, and despair, the mean, grasping, ego-driven behavior that all too often motivate scholarly and intellectual debate” (251).

Perhaps not, but since first proposing we “teach the conflicts,” Graff surely has endured plenty of abuse, plenty of conflict, and yet he perseveres, responding again and again to critics who must seem to him to be, well, clueless. Like Tompkins, Steve Benton thinks he enjoys it: “when conflict is your claim to fame, attacks are almost as gratifying as praise” (2003, 246). But enjoyment may come from a less combative corner, too, for Graff has found an argument—“making arguments is the name of the game in academia” (2003a, 3)—that puts him in an enviable position: “you agree with Graff if you disagree with him,” as Benton puts it (2003, 246). Clueless in Academe provides an excellent example of this, when Graff addresses Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (1999), a book that exemplifies a feminist critique of academic culture as needlessly aggressive and competitive, as characteristically male and macho. Conceding, as he should, that “many of the vices and excesses [in academic discourse] to which [Tannen] refers are instantly recognizable,” Graff nevertheless begs politely to disagree, which he then proceeds to do, partly by suggesting that for us, for academics, there’s no getting outside the culture of argument: [End Page 27] Tannen must present an argument to decry argument. “[P]erhaps the most telling refutation of Tanner’s thesis in The Argument Culture,” Graff writes, “is the confrontational quality of the book itself…. In the act of warning readers against the adversarial, agonistic, oppositional stance, Tannen cannot help becoming adversarial, agonistic, and oppositional” (2003a, 89).

Graff is partly correct here. I say partly because, as Peter J. Rabinowitz also points out (2004, 1–2), making arguments is not the name of the game for everyone in academe: artists, dancers, musicians, or athletes are often inarticulate to the point of silence—or cliché. Even scientists, whose inductive reasoning is a form of argument, do not organize their work around the making of arguments. To generate results, they rely on reproducible tests of falsifiable propositions, tests reproducible by anyone; they do not rely on individual persuasive power. The worlds of our artistic, athletic, and scientific colleagues are no doubt competitive, but they are not centered on the making of persuasive arguments. And, arguably, it is competitiveness—rather than argument per se—that makes utopian the kind of cooperative, non-argumentative academic world envisioned by a Tannen or a Tompkins.

Not that Graff himself can’t be accused of utopian gestures. Plenty occur in Clueless in Academe, such as the notion that “the bottom line goal of education [is] demystifying the ‘club we belong to’ and breaking up its exclusivity” (2003a, 24–25). Like many others among us, Graff wants to deny George Bernard Shaw’s observation in The Doctor’s Dilemma that “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity” (2009, 22). A compelling or mordant assessment remains to be written about why so many academicians in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century wish to deny or abrogate their professional status and accomplishment. But let me say just...


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