The Argument for Teaching Argument | A Conversation with Gerald Graff

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A sense of failure when he first started teaching, Gerald Graff told me in a phone conversation you can listen to below, a sense that he wasn’t reaching a majority of his students, that only ten or twenty percent ever seemed as fired up as he was, pushed him beyond literary studies into thinking and writing about teaching and learning more broadly. In the decades that followed, he went on to become one of the most influential scholars of his generation, president of the Modern Language Association (2008), and Emeritus Professor of English and Education at University of Illinois at Chicago. His commitment to student learning is so strong that he spent the last decade of his career frequently teaching first-year writing, along with courses on the teaching of writing, bucking the expectation that the most elite scholars strictly teach the most specialized topics to the most elite students. The very beginning of college, he feels, is the best place to start helping students see what being an intellectual is all about, letting students in on the secrets of our academic “club,” which are, he argues, primarily about how to argue.

The progression of Graff’s landmark books on education charts the development of the “teaching the conflicts” approach, for which he is best known. In Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987), he traces all the major conflicts that literature professors have had since the beginning of the discipline. In Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992), he argues that we professors, whatever our discipline, ought to share with students the debates we have among ourselves now. In Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (2003), he argues we ought to directly equip students to participate in debates themselves. Finally, with Cathy Birkenstein, in They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (2005), one of the best selling textbooks of all time, he offers students incredibly concrete guidance in how to participate in debates in an academic way, most fundamentally by first summarizing others’ views (“they say”) before responding with one’s own (“I say”).

Among other things, Graff and I discussed his choice of argument as the primary lens through which to view and explain academia to students. He describes argument as a “bridge” term, one students and others outside of academia are familiar with and will automatically relate to. Start with what our audience knows and go from there, he says. We also discussed why students might even want to learn argument and, thus, join our “club” of academics or intellectuals. We should not shy away from practical and even “crass” defenses of the humanities, he argues. What we teach is useful for students’ careers (on this, he points to his essay with Paul Jay, “Fear of Being Useful”). When I asked him what we should do when students to want to debate things that many professors find settled, no longer open for debate, he proposed that many academics are too quick to declare things off limits. After all, many matters that are not debatable in academia are, in fact, debated elsewhere (such as “intelligent design”). Finally, he also shared a little about the new book he and Cathy Birkenstein are currently writing, which will address the disjoint between college and K12 education.

After I turned off the tape recorder, Graff remarked that he and I seemed aligned in our pedagogies in multiple ways. Yes, I responded, because I have been reading his work my entire career. He has helped me and many others understand more clearly the contested and conversational nature of academia. He has contested the silos of “individual great teachers” teaching without the collaboration of colleagues. And, most importantly, he has centered our attention on students and on the work of helping students participate in the great conversation that is academia. I am so grateful for his work.

Listen to our conversation here.

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