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The academic conversation (not just for academics)

From Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academia: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (which I haven’t read except for the online preview but which I hope to read soon):

But who gives a fig, you ask, about “the academic conversation,” which is often a bad conversation, boring, self-important, and dominated by insider orthodoxies? Academic conversations are often all these things, to be sure, but at their best moments they are more valuable and pertinent to students’ lives than academic-bashers give them credit for. Even so, you persist, isn’t the point of education to produce good citizens, not more academics? Surely it is, but these goals are compatible, for the issues and problems addressed by academic research and teaching are increasingly indistinguishable from the issues we wrestle with as public citizens. The point is not to turn students into clones of professors but to give them access to forms of intellectual capital that have a lot of power in the world.

Those who charge that academic discourse is itself the problem fail to see that talk about books and subjects is as important educationally as are the books and subjects themselves. For the way we talk about a subject becomes part of the subject, a fact that explains why we have book-discussion groups to supplement solitary reading, why Trekkies form clubs and hold conferences as well as privately enjoying Star Trek, and why sports talk call-in shows and sports journalism have arisen alongside the games themselves. Students must not only read texts, but find things to say about them, and no text tells you what to say about it. So our habit of elevating books and subjects over the secondary talk about them only helps keep students tongue-tied.


…one form the academic/popular culture contrast still takes is the complaint that schools and colleges fight a losing battle with popular entertainment for the hearts and minds of the young. The culture of ideas and arguments, so the complaint runs, is constantly overwhelmed and negated by visceral experience and spectacle. How can Socrates, Mill, and Henry James hope to compete for students’ attention with “Survivor,” the Spice Girls, the World Wrestling Federation, and the latest Schwarzenegger/Stallone action hero blockbuster?

The complaint makes sense up to a point, but it is misleading in two ways: first, from an educational point of view, the real opposition should be not between Henry James and the Spice Girls, but between intellectual and nonintellectual discussion of Henry James and the Spice Girls or any other subject. As I have noted, it is not the object in itself that creates problems for students but the public, academic ways of analyzing, arguing, and talking about the object. Members of the Spice Girls fan club do not read academic analyses of the Spice Girls (though if they were students, asking them to do so would be a way to draw them into academic culture).


  1. Anonymous says:

    “So our habit of elevating books and subjects over the secondary talk about them only helps keep students tongue-tied.”

    Seems like that’s what Larry Young was saying in his last column, that to elevate comics above ‘the secondary talk’ or it’s entertainment value by applying what he calls ‘academic scrutiny’ to it is to muddy the water and leave students tongue-tied. And how is that a good thing?

    — 11 January 2005 at 5:54 pm (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    Well, part of Clueless in Academia’s argument, as the quotes I pulled out suggest, is that there is much less difference between non-academic and academic conversation than both academics and the popular-culture media typically claim. The argument is, in short, that what keeps students tongue-tied is not ‘academic scrutiny’ itself, but the perpetuation of arguments that academic stuff is “over there” away from popular culture and “entertainment.”

    With respect to Larry Young’s column—frankly, I have seen no strictly academic analysis of the “societal impact of Identity Crisis,” although I’d be much obliged if somebody who has would point it out to me. I have seen people thinking about Identity Crisis and engaging in conversation—not academic conversation, but certainly intellectual—about it. Young’s conflation of public, intellectual conversation about certain kinds of art with ‘academic analysis’ and argument that such conversation is pointless and mistaken is effectively an argument that the best response to certain kinds of art is an anti-intellectual one. I certainly don’t agree with such anti-intellectualism, because I see no quality of something like Identity Crisis that makes it immune to being thought about, and because I don’t consider ‘being entertained by’ of a work of art separate from thinking and conversing about it. (But I also half-expect Young, if he reads this, to disagree that his argument is anti-intellectual or to disagree entirely with my summary of his argument. We’ll see.)

    I don’t think Young’s argument is really the same as what Graff is talking about in the sentence you quoted, since Graff is talking about avoiding secondary texts in education and Young is talking about separating “art for entertainment” and “art for academic analysis.”

    — 11 January 2005 at 6:42 pm (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    Anon (Shane, maybe? I dunno),

    I don’t think this quote is at all akin to Larry’s statement. What he says about analysis of comics in particular is, “Somebody somewhere can write it, and somebody somewhere might find value in it, but academic analysis of entertainment seems to me to be putting a dress on a pig. The dress gets dirty and it annoys the pig. Nobody’s happy.” Obviously I think he’s wrong, because I’m quite happy (occasionally) as the pig-dresser of his metaphor, the one person he left out of the analysis. And I don’t think nobody is happy with the work we do here at Peiratikos, but I fully acknowledge that lots and lots of folks think pop culture artifacts shouldn’t be held up to any real intellectual scrutiny. I don’t agree, but I also don’t think it matters since they of course then have no interest in reading this blog. I don’t think they’d have any more interest if it were All Swinburne All The Time!, but that’s fine too. If Larry Young is right, everything I’m doing is either not intellectual talk (and he may well make that argument) or is a waste of time that probably confuses my readers and keeps them from liking comics, poor fellows!

    But going back specifically to your quote about elevating books over secondary conversation, I think what’s intended is an argument that saying, “Henry James sucks!” is not actually intellectually superior to talking about sexual and racial representation among the Spice Girls. If students aren’t comfortable reading and understanding analysis and secondary texts, it’s going to be very difficult for them to understand how to construct effective analyses of their own.

    I learned how to be an inventive textual critic on my own in high school, with pushes and guidance from some of my teachers, but Steven’s school was not so good. I’m sure I won’t summarize the story correctly, but basically he had a teacher who docked his grade because he wouldn’t write a paper by filling in some sort of paragraph tree and use the proper transitional words in the proper order. The problem is that if students are taught to write it’s generally in the format he rebelled against, the thesis/summary/argument one/support one/whatever/whatever mold. And not all arguments work like that at all, and I’m not sure how many good ones ever do.

    So if it seems that college students can’t address Henry James, maybe that’s because they don’t have the language in which to do it, not because James is magically incomprehensible (though on second thought, maybe I should have chosen a different subject) or anything like that. As far as I can tell from cursory readings of secondary sources, some of Graff’s book addresses how to find a transition between the tree-diagram essays that don’t allow room for invention (or much insight) and articulate, engaged arguments. Graff is saying that leaving these college students alone with their primary texts isn’t going to do the trick, at least not for most. Where Larry Young comes into this (maybe) is that we could extend his point to say that if professors add the component of academic writing done by academics, that can make students feel they don’t understand the secondary works or that they won’t ever be able to write that well, and it somehow leaves them in more glum aporia than before.

    — 11 January 2005 at 6:53 pm (Permalink)

  4. Steven says:

    “I learned how to be an inventive textual critic on my own in high school, with pushes and guidance from some of my teachers, but Steven’s school was not so good. I’m sure I won’t summarize the story correctly, but basically he had a teacher who docked his grade because he wouldn’t write a paper by filling in some sort of paragraph tree and use the proper transitional words in the proper order.”

    That’s pretty much how it went. I think the problem was not so much with the argument formula teachers gave us as with the lack of explanation of (or teacher/student conversation about) what the formula meant or how we should use it. The formula, offered in a vacuum, only further mystified the argumentation that we students were expected to already know about once we got into college.

    I should note that, to my knowledge, no English teachers used the standardized argument formula [it was called TREES, for Topic, Restatement of Topic, Example, Example, Summary] at the high-school level. My high school decided that students needed to learn how to write better essays, but rather than add instruction in writing and argumentation to the curriculum, they simply forced every teacher to assign essays. The non-English teachers, apparently as mystified as the students about how to construct an argument, relied almost exclusively on the TREES formula to grade the essays, with predictably poor results.

    — 11 January 2005 at 7:08 pm (Permalink)