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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 253-256

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We Really Do Not Know How to Disagree with Each Other

Jeffrey Wallen

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For years Gerald Graff (1992: 14) has worked to make our disagreements in literary studies "productive for education," and he is best known for his notion of "teaching the conflicts," the idea that we ought to stop shielding students from our debates and instead bring our conflicts and disagreements into the classroom. I will argue that before we bring our academic conflicts into the classroom, we need to make them much worthier of pedagogical scrutiny. Contestation is essential for carrying out what most of us view as our task in literary studies today: we hope to do more than transmit a body of established knowledge. But our feeble modes of disagreement do little to bring about strong engagement with other people's ideas; they usually provide only a justification for going our own way in the ever-fragmenting spaces of the multiversity.

Before pointing to symptoms of our anemic professional discord and suggesting possibilities for revitalizing our practices, I want to emphasize two areas where Graff's arguments have been effective and beneficial. He has provoked us to supply or create for students a context that makes the study of literature a meaningful activity, and he has demanded that we take greater responsibility for our own role in instituting literary studies. Two years ago, while teaching in France, where professors unabashedly and straightforwardly initiate students into the teaching profession, I became highly conscious of the paradoxical ways in which academic literary criticism in the United States requires some sort of anti-institutional posture, such as an attack on traditional views or a striving to subvert the dominant culture. Yet our function, and often our aim, is to bring students into our own professional framework—to initiate them into an institutional world of norms, practices, outlooks, and values that we have helped establish—and our work takes place within one of the pivotal institutional structures of American society. Graff has been instrumental in attacking the irresponsibility and bad faith of an "entrenched anti-institutionalism" that hides, in a self-serving manner, our institutional roles "from the kids" (Graff and Hoberek 1999: 243). While working in the French system, where the purposefulness of literary study is upheld by the culture and by state-run institutions that control access to [End Page 253] teaching jobs, I became even more aware of the collapse of any overarching framework or widely shared sense of mission that would uphold the value and importance of studying literature for U.S. students. With the passing of the missions that at one time placed the study of literature near the center of American university education, such as inculcation into a national culture, Graff has pushed us to explain and make evident to students the new contexts—the areas of research and the controversial questions—that make literary study significant for ourselves and for others.

I have elaborated elsewhere some of the reasons why we need to transform our professorial discussions and debates before carrying out any plans to put them at the center of the graduate, undergraduate, and high school curriculum (Wallen 1998, 2002). Here I will briefly recap part of that argument before offering some suggestions about what it might take for our disagreements to achieve the intellectual and pedagogical merit that would make teaching the conflicts a wonderful proposition.

Many literary critics claim that discussion and disagreement are primary tools for the production of knowledge, but in our profession we really do not know how to disagree with each other. We are much too comfortable, both when disagreeing and when responding to disagreement, with avoiding what is truly challenging and what truly matters in another person's ideas, and we usually sidestep the opportunity to question our own ideas, to articulate something new, to move beyond what we know. Despite cultural criticism's huge ambitions—everyone claims to make an intervention that will disrupt the current systems of domination and lead us toward a better society&#8212...


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