I’ve long been a Graff fan–I thought his Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education the best treatment of how to teach the so-called Culture Wars, to bring them right into the classroom and make them part of an engaging curriculum.
His latest isn’t as good– Clueless in Academe makes a fine, but small argument, and might have been better in a shorter version, an Atlantic or Harper’s magazine article, perhaps. But though smaller than the size of the book, the idea at its heart is really a helpful handle on the question of why don’t students “get” academic argument. Because we don’t teach it, Graff says; we treat the somewhat artificial and certainly alien construct of academic argument as somehow implicit, when it needs to be made explicit and modeled before students can be effectively initiated into the “game of persuasive argument,” or what we might call the land of “Arguespeak.”
His target audience is for teachers of introductory college students AND, even more so I’d argue, most high school students. He tells a funny story that resonates here about sharing with new college students articles from Allan Bloom and bell hooks, and finding his students couldn’t differentiate between them because they were equally foreign in the abstraction of their argumentation. He cites Gardner on the point that students are often “insensitive to the vocabulary of argument: ‘contend,’ ‘hypothesize,’ ‘refute,’ and ‘contradict.'” And there is the “problem-problem.” Academics know that their work depends on “problematizing” texts or topics so as to have an angle for argument and analysis– to answer the so-what question– but students at the outset are often only frustrated by why we are asking them to make a problem out of something seemingly simple. (This is not news to any of us who have taught high school students, I realize, that they are sometimes frustrated by problematization, but sometimes we as teachers get frustrated with their frustrations, rather than realizing they are predicated on our lack, Graff suggests, of laying a metacognition understanding of why we problematize in the first place.)
I enjoy Graff’s reassertion that argumentation is at the heart of persuasive writing and clearer thinking; it offers a stimulating connection as well to Grant Wiggins work, and his lesson that we must construct our units around “essential questions,” and essential questions must be things that can and are argued about, vigorously, ideally outside the classroom as well as in it. That is good teaching for understanding for Wiggins, making it paramount for both writers. Graff says “Conflict and controversy should be made more central for the curriculum.” He laments, pointedly, that “most American students go through their entire high school and college careers without ever witnessing a debate between their teachers.”
The real practical suggestions come in the chapter/essay, Why Johnny Can’t Argue. Here, Graff grapples with what we all have in high school, and middle school, writing: its flatness, its tone of summary or perfunctory recitation. The teaching trick, (and I know this is not revelatory, many of us do it all the time, but it is important) is that “students write better when they have conversations to enter.. the key point is that in order to make your own argument, you have to write someone else’s voice into your own text.” Introduce and emphasize, push hard upon, the “so what” question: a reader over your shoulder, pressing your thesis: so what? Who cares? Plant inside your text a naysayer. “Instructing students to write a naysayer into their text is the single most effective device I have come up with in teaching writing.”
Teach the controversy, put argument into the heart of the curriculum, wrestle with essential questions, and have kids write as conversants in the “volleyball” game of intellectual discourse, explicitly introducing them to arguespeak. Their thinking will clarify, their analysis sharpen, their engagement grow, and their preparation improve.