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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 245-249
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Conflicts over Conflicts
It has been eighteen years, actually, since Gerald Graff first suggested that schools should teach conflicts. This pedagogical proposal, now Graff's calling card, made its first, rather humble appearance as the sixth of "seven propositions on teaching" included in his and Reginald Gibbons's preface to Criticism and the University. "The university does not have a unified cultural tradition to impart but rather a set of cultural conflicts—including conflicts over what the cultural tradition is and has been thought to be," Graff and Gibbons (1985: 12) wrote. "The organization of the university now prevents these conflicts from becoming visible and educationally functional. Professors' lives are consequentially as much impoverished as students'." Since then—much to Graff's delight, I am sure—there has been no end to the conflicts over this claim.
Fast-forward to the roundtable on Graff's work at the 2001 Modern Language Association convention in New Orleans, in which all the writers in this symposium participated: Hours before the event, someone asked Graff what he planned to say in his public response at the end. Not knowing what we would say about him, he joked, "I guess it will be somewhere between 'Aw, shucks' and 'Screw you!'" As it turned out, we gave him ammunition for both [End Page 245] responses, but the funny thing about Graff is that he probably would not have been disappointed if we had given him only "Screw you!" material. When conflict is your claim to fame, attacks are almost as gratifying as praise. Graff knew that if he did not leave the session with more supporters for his cause, he would at least carry away another anecdotal specimen of the conflictual behavior that, he insists, defines the academic experience.
Graff's argument—that conflict is what academics do for a living (and, for that matter, what anyone who wants to influence public opinion does)—gives pause to any respondent once he or she realizes that you agree with Graff if you disagree with him. Not that the pause has ever silenced Graff's critics. Like a Rorschach inkblot test, Graff's call to "teach the conflicts" has generated a steady flow of diverse responses, among them the following:
Like those who hold these views, I have, in my time, had a beef with teaching the conflicts. I was teaching American literature at Xiamen University in China when I first experimented with Graff's pedagogy. For me, it was, initially, a disaster. My students had told me that discussion had been scarce in their previous courses, so I expected them to be shy when I asked them to debate the merits of the various critical readings presented in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, edited by Graff and [End Page 246] James Phelan (1995a). 2 Once they got...