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Clueless in Academe: An Interview with Gerald Graff

Clueless in Academe: An Interview with Gerald Graff

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Professors complain that each year’s batch of students are more clueless than the last, but could they be the ones in the dark? Our writer interviews author and academic Gerald Graff on who’s to blame for the failures in our classrooms.

A common scene: In class, I ask for a student to summarize the argument of a newspaper editorial, and in return, I get only slack-jawed stares, or worse yet, the summary is simply wrong. What is wrong with them? I wonder. Why can’t they do something that seems so simple? I ask. They must be lazy, I surmise. Whatever is going wrong, I’m certain it isn’t my fault.

Maybe not, according to Gerald Graff. After teaching college for more than 40 years, and gazing from his current position as professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Graff is well-acquainted with the phenomenon of ‘cluelessness.’ But rather than only blaming an unmotivated or ill-prepared student population, he sees a gulf between student and professor that is partially, if not entirely caused by the academy’s failure to make itself accessible to students. In his new book, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, Graff examines this phenomenon and offers solutions to begin bridging the gap between teacher and student.

He spoke with me about Clueless in Academe recently via email.

* * *
Warner: First, how clueless are the clueless? That is, how big is the gap between academia and student culture?

Graff: Big enough to be a major scandal, I think. It’s hard to measure the gap or even to know what criteria to use, but it’s hardly news to anybody that the vast majority of American college students don’t think of themselves as insiders to the academic intellectual world. Nor do educators even expect that they will become insiders. Yet, if students don’t in some sense become insiders to part of the academic intellectual world—if they don’t talk our talk or have a sense of what our issues are—then in what sense are they being educated?

Some of course would say that ‘our issues’ are so narrow, specialized, and arid, not to mention vacuous to boot, and that ‘our talk’ is so turgid and jargon-ridden, that it’s all the better that students not understand them! After all, the point is not to produce clones of dry-as-dust academics but broadly educated citizens. And it’s true, as I acknowledge in the book, that it makes a big difference how we define ‘our issues’ and ‘our talk,’ and I spend many pages trying to distinguish the better forms of talk—the ones that would provide good models for students—from the worst ones. In any case, the objection misses the point, that whatever students study is routed through some set of academics and their language. The disciplines themselves are mediated by the talk of scholars. And students don’t simply study Shakespeare, they speak and write about Shakespeare, and will do so badly unless they master the proper forms of talk for the subject, in this case literary criticism. Finally, insofar as scholarly discourse about a subject overlaps with the popular journalistic discourse about it, to expect students to become ‘insiders’ is simply to expect them to take part in the literate discourse of their culture about important issues. I don’t think many will disagree that even the vast majority of college students are very far from meeting that standard.

Warner: What are the most immediate consequences of the gap that you see in your day-to-day work with students? How is the gap manifesting itself?

Graff: As I’ve just said, only the minority of high-achieving students can enter into a conversation about intellectual issues or write a competent paper about those issues. To me this means that the idea of democratic education is something of a joke.

Warner: What do you see as the long term consequences of remaining ‘clueless?’ How big a threat is this problem really? Is this something only college professors are wringing their hands over, or should other groups be concerned as well.

Graff: I think cluelessness in academe is a major threat to democracy, especially at a moment when talk-back radio, Cable TV talk shows, the Internet, and the reliance of politicians on opinion-polling have made a certain kind of public debate—even if it’s debate within narrowly constrained parameters—more immediately important in American and global politics. In these conditions, one needs not only an ‘informed’ citizenry, but a citizenry that’s sophisticated enough in weighing arguments to spot logical contradictions and non-sequiturs, not to mention outright lies.

The developments leading up to the war in Iraq are a case in point. A citizenry trained by schooling to scrutinize claims more critically might have prevented the Bush administration from getting away with its claims that Saddam Hussein was a real threat to U.S. security, that he had WMDs, that he was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, etc. A citizenry trained to think more critically would also be harder to bamboozle with claims that tax cuts will help average workers as opposed to the wealthy.

Warner: My sense is that the students don’t miss something they were never aware existed, particularly if they are directed towards college as the pathway toward wealth and career, as many of them are these days. They equate getting a degree with being educated. By and large, I think parents have bought into this mindset as well. So I want to ask, do you see a lot of concern over this ‘scandal,’ outside of the academe, or are we letting it pass us by?

Graff: You’re right that many students don’t miss an initiation into the intellectual world of whose very existence they never even learn. No, I don’t see as much concern within academia over this problem as I think there should be. I think we’ve gotten accustomed to a system in which the very few excel in school (and reap the rewards in the vocational world beyond) and the many stumble along and more or less get by, or get through, or fail. In some ways such a system suits us academics—it’s not our fault if the majority stumble or fail, we can easily say, that’s just the way it is; only an elite in any society is going to ‘get’ the intellectual club, etc. Insofar as this is a common academic attitude, I blame academics more than parents, whom it’s also our job to educate, after all.

Warner: What brought you to write about this issue? Is it just the logical extension from your previous work (Beyond the Culture Wars), or something even beyond that?

Graff: It started with the feeling I’ve had since I started teaching (around 1962 as a graduate student) that at best I was reaching 15-20 percent of the students in an average undergraduate class and that the remaining 80-85 percent were in some other country or time-zone. Comparing notes with colleagues over the years led me to conclude that most felt the same way. Some unashamedly said they teach to that top 15-20 percent and figure there’s no point worrying about the others. Of course, some colleagues claim that they reach a much higher percentage, but I suspect they are kidding themselves.

As for Beyond the Culture WarsClueless is both a continuation and a departure. Part of the point of the earlier book was that controversy clarifies, that intellectual issues become intelligible to us at points of controversy, when we become able to see who’s where on the issues, what the relationships between positions are, and what’s at stake—so what and who cares. Unfortunately, because of the culture war situation, that book got so caught up with conflict that few readers noticed that the end for which I was promoting controversy was intelligibility. In fact, I noticed that when I’d give a talk on the problem of academic unintelligibility that audiences would often act as if I’d spoken on teaching the conflicts. I realized I had to write another book if I was going to get my point fully across.

In Clueless, I still argue (even more explicitly actually) that controversy clarifies, but I try to separate the problem of conflict from that of intelligibility—more specifically, the unintelligibility of academe—and to focus on the latter problem more directly.

Warner: It seems that this would illustrate the point that you make in the book about those of us in the academe being as clueless as the students. Do you find resistance to the sorts of changes you propose? What is the blowback like from within the academe?

Graff: It’s fair to say that my arguments are controversial. I have my critics and my supporters as well. (The current [Spring 2003] issue of the journal Pedagogy has a symposium on my work, ‘Teaching the Conflicts at Twenty Years,’ if anyone’s interested. There’s also a book, Teaching the Conflicts: Gerald Graff, Curricular Reform, and the Culture Wars, William E. Cain, ed. [New York: Garland, 1994].)

I like to think I had some success making my proposals work in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities I helped develop and direct at the University of Chicago in the late ’90s (see the discussion of this ‘MAPH’ program in Clueless) and in my more recent work as associate dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I helped institute a program of course-clustering for freshmen. I probably need to become a dean, if not a provost or president, to get to the next level. If anyone knows of a cheap university that I could get, please let me know!

Like many educators, I don’t trust quantitative measurements of student prowess and can’t wait till the current standardized testing craze collapses from its own silliness.

Warner: Do you have any thoughts on the commercial success of books like (on the right) Ann Coulter’s Slander or Michael Savage’s A Savage Nation, or (on the left) Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, books with ‘argument’ at their center that rely on extremely dubious strategies of argument?

Graff: I’m ambivalent about this trend. On the one hand, as you say, these kinds of books tend to rely on pseudo-argument. On the other hand, to modify something I say in Clueless, I’m a believer in the pedagogical and civic value of bad argument. I think a culture of crude and crudely polarized debate is an advance over the Eisenhower era I grew up in, where conflicts were mushed over in a haze of evasive rhetoric. I can imagine a good course in which students would read Coulter and Moore for starters and then move on to more nuanced and complicated texts on the same set of issues.

Warner: I worry that this polarized debate is creating too much noise for nascent critical thinkers to work though towards the goal of more nuanced thinking that would allow them to judge the actions of their elected leaders more thoroughly. We may have them in class three hours a week for a semester, but Rush Limbaugh is on for 15 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, sports talk (and its requisite bellowing) is available 24 hours a day. With these models, particularly models that are built to ‘entertain,’ how can we compete? Doesn’t it have to extend beyond the academe?

Graff: Hey, leave my sports talk shows alone—they get me to work every day and back! Though it’s true that at their worst they’re rampantly sexist and homophobic as well as just plain stupid, I wish the quality of political debate in this country was anywhere near as good as the debates on sports talk radio about whether the Cubs should trade or hang on to Sammy Sosa (clearly they should hang on—and I wrote that, mind you, before he hit a ton of homeruns in July and August!). As for noise, that’s simply what critical thinkers learn how to penetrate, make sense of, and deflect for their own purposes, it seems to me. It’s true that we educators have far less time with students than do the Rush Limbaughs, but that only means we should be making far better use of the time we do have. I argue in Clueless that schools and colleges have a lot more potential power to become a significant counterculture to the worst of the media and of youth culture (see my final chapter on Deborah Meier’s work in Harlem and Boston schools) than we recognize or come close to realizing. As I point out, the media didn’t gain its enormous power without thinking carefully about how to organize its representations for a mass audience, whereas for us academics (despite our impressive theorizations of the nature of representation) we think it’s sufficient to organize education by saying ‘You teach your thing at 10AM and I’ll teach mine at 11’ and leave it at that! I say this much better in the book, of course.

Warner: Lastly, how will we know when we’re winning (or perhaps losing) the battle against cluelessness? What are the signs we should be looking for that will signal either a shift toward greater engagement between academic and student culture, or, on the other hand, the formation of a permanent and uncrossable breech between the two?

Graff: A great and tough question. Like many educators, I don’t trust quantitative measurements of student prowess and can’t wait till the current standardized testing craze collapses from its own silliness. On the other hand, I’ve heard the claim made by high school administrators that curricula that make challenging intellectual issues accessible and interesting to students significantly raise standardized test scores as a byproduct. One colleague claimed, for example, that such a curriculum led to higher reading scores in his school because it motivated more students to learn to read. I’d like to think this is true, that programs that make the intellectual world intelligible to students will produce measurable success, even by criteria that are too crude to measure genuine intellectual performance.

Beyond this, I think the evidence will have to be of the ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ kind. I find there’s a fairly strong consensus among the teachers I encounter that the majority of high school and college students is, if not completely clueless in academe, more or less confused about the intellectual game academics play and in some cases turned off by it. The statements by 11th graders that I quote in Chapter 2 of the book back up this claim, I think. Courses and programs that make the game more accessible and user-friendly should produce fairly clear observable results that could be gauged for example in exit interviews with students.

Here’s what I’d like to do some day and may get a chance to do soon: Take five sections of freshman composition at a university and teach them using the ‘argument templates’ discussed extensively in Clueless and other methods for demystifying academic culture. Closely monitor the writing done by the students over the course of the semester or year, and compare their work with that produced by a randomly-chosen control group of a different five sections of the same course. I like to think the results would dramatically bear out my claims. If they didn’t it would be back to the drawing-board for me. But it’s symptomatic of the incuriosity of higher education about what students actually get out of college that one never hears about such experiments even being tried.

Day Late, Dollar Short, ed. Peter C. Herman (SUNY Press, 2000), 211-19

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Day Late, Dollar Short

The Next Generation and the New Academy. 

Edited by Peter C. Herman (SUNY Press, 2000), 211-219



Peter C. Herman

PETER C. HERMAN (PCH): I’d like to begin by asking your view on the existence of the next generation. Given that most of the theories presently dominating the profession have their roots in the ’60s, what do you see arising from critics who came later?


GERALD GRAFF (GG): Perhaps one way in which what you call the “next gener­ation” could stake out a project that would be very different from that of its elders would be by paying attention not just to whatever defines the cutting edge in schol­arship, criticism, and theory, but also to how well such work is understood and as­similated by undergraduates and other nonprofessionals. To put it baldly, what dif-ference will it make if tomorrow’s paradigm setters establish some really original new ground if the questions they raise remain as nebulous to 99 percent of American stu­dents and other citizens as today’s new (or for that matter old) academic work?

One would think such a question would have surfaced more prominently by now in a profession that claims in theory to be dedicated to educating everyone, not just a minority. In my experience, however, few either inside or outside the university, including few who call themselves progressives, really believe that more than a small percentage of the student or adult population is capable of profiting from or becoming interested in academic-intellectual concerns. I think this assumption is becoming anachronistic in an information economy in which humanistic skills of argumentation, analysis, and critical thinking are increasingly recognized to be a crucial form of cul­tural capital. Here, then, it seems to me, is a big potential opportunity for the next gen­eration, to identify itself with the realization of democratic mass education, in the sense not only of democratic access to a college degree but real access to intellectual culture, which despite all our talk of “empowering” students still remains a minority culture.

To be sure, the academic reward system has notoriously discouraged us from taking education seriously in the way I suggest. But the reward system has always proved capable of being modified and stretched in order to accomodate vanguard trends, so blaming the reward system for our failure to take our educational mission seriously seems an excuse. Historically the academic profession has been very good at telling itself why it can’t change, and it will be too bad if the next generation contin­ues such rationalizing.


PCH: The previous generations made much of their impact through theoretical interventions, such as the new criticism, deconstruction, and new historicism. What do you see emanating from the next generation?

GG: Again, I’m proposing that taking education seriously rather than making theoretical breakthroughs is one way the NG can make a name for itself, though this in itself would constitute a theoretical breakthrough. Are your doubts about whether the NG will go in this direction or about whether it ought to? Whatever the case, there are a few signs that it may already be heading that way: a new journal called Pedagogy has been established that figures to do a lot to make teaching/learning/curriculum re­spectable as a research field (and thereby overcome the research/teaching gap), and it would appear to be led by next generation people.


PCH: Clearly, some of the next generation think so. David Galef, in his chapter in this volume, also argues that writing and creative writing programs are the wave of the future. In a sense, both you and he suggest that what theory was to previous gen­erations of critics, teaching will be to us.


GG: I’m encouraged to hear that there are other flakes out there who share my hunch that teaching (and the teaching of writing) may be the emergent paradigm, though the teaching of exposition is far more crucial to me than the teaching of cre­ative writing. I have doubts that “Expressivist” models of writing are ever going to ap­peal to more than a marginal minority of compositionists, though I admit that I may be succumbing to wishful thinking there.


PCH: Concerning the movement of next generation Ph.D.’s into high schools, one problem is that the hiring track and credentialing for those positions is very dif­ferent from the one for postsecondary education. For next generation Ph.D.’s to start moving in that direction will start turf wars, as it is likely that the education faculties producing their own students for these jobs will resent and resist giving Ph.D’s any ground. Additionally, there is the problem of research as there is little allowance in post-secondary education for scholarly publishing. Certainly, there’s increasing out­side pressure for postsecondary institutions to become more directly involved with secondary education, mainly, though, from administration. The faculty at UCSD, for instance, rejected the chancellor’s proposal to create an on-campus high school by a significant margin.


GG: Thanks for the information about UCSD. I have no illusions about the re­sistance colleges and universities will put up to involving themselves with high school education. Many university professors would rather dig ditches than have contact with high schools. All I would suggest is that a significant groundswell of interest in collab­oration of various sorts has been developing among college faculty and high school teachers, and that some of the financial and other pressures on both camps make it likely to continue. Though it will be difficult to induce some professors to enter into contacts with high schools, it will also be difficult to prevent those who wish to do so, and these are a growing number. Who knows what the outcome will be, but the mere fact of a conflict like the one you report in San Diego suggests that something is chang­ing. As for the turf wars you predict between education schools and other departments over who gets to do high school credentialing, we are already seeing cooperation be­tween these units. See the new book just published by MLA, Preparing a Nation’s Teachers, which describes several such projects.


PCH: What do you think has changed in the profession that might cause such a shift?


GG: Outside forces: money, jobs, public presssures. Rumor has it that high school teachers are going to be in great demand, fuelled in part by demographics and in part by the public groundswell for improving secondary education. If such job op­portunities are indeed opening up, they are doing so at the moment of an unprece­dented surge of interest—backed by foundation-grant initiatives—in both the school and college arenas in curricular and pedagogical mergers. As high school teaching be­comes less isolated from the university research culture (and as it continutes to pay well in some schools at least), the attitudes that have stigmatized such teaching figure to weaken. Persuasive challenges to such attitudes are already being made—see the co­gent essay in the 1996 issue of Profession by Alison T. Smith about the financial and intellectual rewards of high school teaching for people with doctorates.1

You say a move toward education doesn’t fit the publishing paradigm, but I think that’s no longer the case. And though it’s true that high school teachers up to now have usually had neither the time nor inclination to publish, I believe this situ­ation is changing as high school teaching is becoming more professionalized and many high school teachers seek to move closer to the culture of the university. New inter­actions are occurring between high school and college instructors that could vastly redefine the way these roles have been conceived.

For example, I finished a project last year that involved bringing over four hun­dred high school students and their teachers together with volunteer students from my undergraduate class to debate traditional and colonialist readings of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I never would have imagined five years ago that I’d be doing this—it goes against all the supposedly iron laws of the profession that you mention—but I am. Ba­sically, in your response you invoke the old rules, but I think a shakeup is taking place which is changing the rules and I’m dedicated to advancing that process. (And speak­ing of things I would not previously have imagined, a few months after we concluded this interview I was offered and accepted the position of Associate Dean for Curricu­lum and Pedagogy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where a major part of my responsibility will be coordinating teacher-education programs.)


PCH: What about the NG’s continuance in the critical pathways of previous generations (for the most part); that is, the lack of a voice that alters criticism’s di­rection the way that Fish, Greenblatt, and Derrida did, might stem from a different set of priorities?


GG: Perhaps you can tell me what priorities you have in mind. To me the “con­tinuance” you mention reflects the tremendous normalizing force of the residual in­stitutional model, which makes it very hard for people to recognize that the model may in fact be crumbling. Despite our well known penchant for casting ourselves as subversives, our profession is deeply wedded to the story that nothing really can change.


PCH: For most of us, the primary, overarching priority in graduate school was not to change the world but to land one of the ever-more-elusive tenure-track posi­tions. Consequently, taking on our teachers in print, going in a completely different direction, entails taking a considerable risk. Also, another impediment to privileging

teaching, including going into high school teaching, is the way this profession divies up rewards. Upward mobility in the humanities is made possible through prestigious publications, not through teaching. Doubtless, Professor Graff, you are an exemplary teacher, but my guess is that you moved from your first positions to the University of Chicago in large part because of your exemplary publications, such as Professing Lit­erature. Consequently, for the next generation to embrace pedagogy means foregoing the usual means of professional advancement. As for the new journal (which I admit I have not seen), my guess is that it is not so much aimed at English and literature de­partments as for the nascent field of comp/rhet studies (which is in the fascinating po­sition of just beginning to define itself as a discipline and is presently going through the same processes that you outlined for English in Professing Literature).


GG: You say I made my way by publishing Professing Literature, not by my teach­ing. But Professing Literature is a book about teaching. And hasn’t teaching become a growth industry as a publication and research topic? Many books and essays that for­merly would have been solely about literature or criticism are now about teaching as well—books that have done very well like Diana Fuss’s Essentially Speaking and Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs. The educational debates of the culture war have made teaching a boom subject for journals, presses, and conferences, and while comp/rhet leads the field it does not completely monopolize it, as the names listed above demon­strate.

As for your original question about what’s next, I don’t think critical work is tapped out, but I do think the next generation ran into a change in the nature of ac­ademic-intellectual publishing that I’ve seen set in during my academic career. I’m thinking of the vast increase in the number of academic books from the late ’70s or early ’80s on that has made it easier to get published but harder to get attention. I don’t have statistics to back me up, but my feeling is that people of roughly my age published our work in a far less saturated and competitive publishing market than those who have come after us.

When I started at Northwestern in 1966 a colleague of mine had the whole yearly output of Princeton University Press on his shelves and he seemingly kept up with it. Nothing like that would be conceivable today in the wake of the publishing explosion of the last few decades. After us the deluge, or so it seems. And it’s not just that there have been increasingly more books to compete with but a diversification and fragmentation of the audience, so that it’s more difficult today than it once was to write the sort of book that “everybody” in the profession feels he or she has to read or at least know of.


PCH: What do you think the effect of this dispersal will be on the kinds of crit­icism that the next generation will produce? Do you see next generation critics as de­liberately aiming at an increasingly small segment of the general audience? Are they trying to broaden their audience? Or settling for a much smaller one? And what will the effect of the economic downturn in publishing be?


GG: In the old days, when men were men and a field was a field, there were one or two major journals in each period and everybody “in” that period was supposed to subscribe to and read them. In the wake of postmodernism and other detotalizing trends that have undermined or blurred field definitions, there are many more jour­nals but no single one that you can count on everyone reading if you get in it. There’s a good essay by the sociologist Howard Becker, by the way, on this phenomenon of journal proliferation in the social sciences.2


PCH: I agree that there are many more journals today than in the past. On the other hand, prestige still counts,. and I’ve seen search and tenure committees look askance at articles in very small journals and nonuniversity press books. But granted that there are more outlets for tenure-earning publications, what do you think the overall effect of these smaller, less-read, and less-subscribed-to journals might be on next generation critics. Are we moving into an era of coterie scholarship?


GG: Yes, I guess we are, though members of coteries are obviously less likely to publish if they can’t get jobs. True, the prestige of the journal can still make a differ­ence. But historically, hiring, tenure, and promotion committees have eventually yielded to the broadening of what counts as tenurable research and publication. Go back far enough and you’ll get to a time when such committees would have looked askance at someone who published criticism in Kenyon Review or Sewanee Review, or at someone who published creative writing or produced paintings. But gradually, and unevenly, such forms of professional production eventually got counted as “research.” (I have an essay on this process of change: “The Scholar in Society.”)3


PCH: Yet I wonder how the economics of the present situation will affect this. I have in mind the fact that many libraries are cutting back on journal subscriptions rather than keeping, let alone increasing them. So, while it is true that there are an awful lot of new journals out there (e.g., symploke, which first published several of the chapters in this collection), fewer and fewer institutions can subscribe to them. And with no distribution, the journal cannot become known and gain prestige. Which means that the already established journals, like ELH, Representations, and PMLA, continue, and with increased submissions. Yet also, we are speaking here about print journals, which leaves alone online ones such as EMLS.

And that brings me to another question. What do you think the effect will be of the World Wide Web on scholarship? And do you see any differences between crit­ics such as yourself who were trained and established themselves in a pre-Net world, and next generation critics who, for the most part, grew up taking computers for granted?


GG: I guess I can’t measure the differences yet, but I’m sure that some are emerging as the use of the Net alters our practices. I know electronic communication has already had a big impact on my own teaching now that my classes are online and students can go on conversing after class with each other and with me.

The Net threatens the basic rule of the academic world, which is I won’t mess with what you do (in your class, office, department, etc.) if you don’t mess with me. That is, it threatens the structure of carefully programmed ignorance of each other that allows us to tune out colleagues who might say things we don’t want to hear and thereby preserves a certain civilized Balance of Mutual Fear, at least among those of roughly comparable power. As the educational historian Veysey put it, the modern university is founded on ignorance, and the Net challenges that foundation by mak­ing it much more difficult not to know things about each other.


PCH: OK, but do you think that computers will actually effect a paradigm shift in how we do scholarship, or will they just speed things up—that is, we do the same things, only we can do them much more quickly?


GG: My idea of what a significant “paradigm shift” would be may be different from that of others, since as I noted above my interest is in changing institutional structures and not just “how we do scholarship.”

To me, a true paradigm shift would be an institution in which contestation and debate (including that over political issues) becomes the central, everyday agenda in­stead of being marginalized and channeled into self-reinforcing, self-flattering dis­courses. Yet the outcome of this contestation and debate would not be predetermined or easy to predict. I think this view puts me at odds with current pedagogical radicals of the Paulo Freire stripe, who in effect say, “It won’t count as a paradigm shift un­less the good guys (ourselves) win.”

In any case, I think electronic technology may in and of itself have a tendency to force academics out of our protected zones and into engagements with those we would prefer to tune out. But it’s hard to predict that this will actually happen. Al­ready, as Ellen Willis said at a recent conference at my university, the result of email seems not to be a new macropublic sphere but a proliferation of minispheres that (as I would put it) do not communicate with each other and so reinforce in-group self-right­eousness. Do the email exchanges of the National Association of Scholars circulate to the Marxist Literary Group and vice versa? There has recently been an interesting list-serve exchange over the “Sokal Text” scandal over “science studies” in which antipost-moderns like Norman Levitt, Paul Gross, and Alan Sokal himself engaged with Michael Berube, Bruce Robbins, and-others more sympathetic to postmodernism.

Predictably, these debates were not very good—parties talking past one another rather than to one another. Still, I thought the exchange showed that a discussion aross the battle lines could at least be started, but others may have seen it as proof that it can’t happen. Whatever the case, the exchange or nonexchange would not have taken place at all were it not for electronic communication.


PCH: To move to another topic, In his article, Jeff Williams puts into question the movement toward increasing public access, arguing that its effect is to create a “star system” that most of us dream about while “at the same time socio-institutional con­ditions make that dream more and more fantastical.” What’s your response?


GG: Jeff Williams’s attacks on the star system seem to be rooted in a fear that professors will someday become comprehensible to more than a handful of students and others and will then become co-opted by corporations, which will schmooze and disarm us even as they downsize us. In Jeff’s view, evidently, the only thing more disastrous for higher education than being defunded by corporate America is being funded by corporate America. In other words, there’s a contradiction or double bind in his argument somewhere. I much prefer the argument you yourself make in a recent PMLA Forum, in which you write that we academics “need to learn how to justify ourselves in the lan­guage of the McDonald’s mentality.”4 (Of course what this Egghead McMuffin lan­guage would look like is not something anyone can prescribe in advance.) This in a way is all that I was trying to say above when I suggested that the big opportunity for the next generation is to take seriously the mass-education mandate—the democrati­zation of intellectuality—to which American education has always given lip service but never tried to put into practice.


PCH: I think Jeff’s point is the power inequity between us and corporations, meaning that there will never be an equitable negotiation between partners of unequal power.


GG: This is a council of fatalism, then, since unequal power is a structural fea­ture of all human situations. Jeff and the academic Left want a risk-free situation in which a level playing field is provided before it deigns to enter into a public debate. My assumption, by contrast, is that the only way disempowered groups are likely to level the playing field is by entering into unequal negotiations and then doing what­ever can be done to displace and transform their terms.


PCH: My point, though, in the letter, is that we need to start appealing to cor­porate values (rather than simply denouncing them) in order to further precisely the intellectuality that you are talking about. Which brings us to what I think is the pri­mary difference between the material conditions affecting the next generation and previous generations: the corporatization of the academy—that is, the application of business models and business values to higher education. What’s your opinion of this, and how do you think it will affect the next generation?


GG: See what I said above in response to Jeff Williams’s blanket condemnation of any compromise by academics with corporatization—as if we even have the option of compromising! I think higher education, which has always been dependent on cor­porations in any case, has no choice but to seek corporate support. Rather than rail in our ritualistic way against corporatization, we would be wiser to begin distin­guishing between retrograde and relatively progressive forms of corporatization. If Christopher Newfield is correct in his essay “Recapturing Academic Business,”5 cor­porate culture is itself deeply split between pure bottom-line managers and those who take the public interest seriously. So Critical Corporatism (as we might call it) seems a better option for academics than the knee-jerk bashing of business that either flat­tens our academic sense of superiority or consoles us for our powerlessness.


PCH: Yet the knee-jerk bashing also comes from the opposite side. For example, The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes James F. Carlin, chairman of the state’s Board of Higher Education, as asserting that “‘Professors should teach more than 12 hours a week,’ and `meaningless research’ should be banned; 50 percent of research outside the hard sciences was `a lot of foolishness.'”6 Nor are such sentiments rare among administrators, let alone the general public. How do you think this will im­pact the next generation’s teaching and research?

GG: I hardly agree with Carlin, but if the next generation is content just to re- act defensively to such views or merely to shrug them off it’s likely to find itself out­voted. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, as they say, to see that probably more than half of the sum total of humanities research put out at any moment is indeed “a lot of foolishness” (yours and mine excepted, of course), almost by definition. What makes Carlin’s complaint unfair is that probably an even higher percentage of the re­search in the hard sciences is even more vacuous and useless than the research in the humanities. This is hardly news to anybody. National Public Radio recently did a feature about a doctoral dissertation in which somebody has calculated the statistical possibilities of your getting a parking space at your local supermarket. Some of our recent race-class-gender-obsessed research in the humanities may be silly, but at least it’s being silly about important things. You can’t say that about the huge amounts of drivel churned out by the social and physical sciences, in which volumes of statistical data are marshalled to demonstrate stupefyingly trivial conclusions.

So if it comes down to a pissing contest over whose research is more jejune, the scientists should be made to answer for their own well-documented record for empty sterility, and they should feel the defunding axe as much as we humanists do, unlikely though this may be. But it would be better to avoid being defensive about our own record or getting into a competitition with the sciences over whose research is more jejune. I think academics on both sides of the science-humanities gap should start ac­knowledging that academic research can no longer expect to be publicly supported unless it can justify itself in some terms—not necessarily narrow or vulgar ones—that the public can understand and whose relevance to undergraduate teaching can be es­tablished. I think we’re going to be held accountable to such a public standard whether we like it or not—so get used to it!


PCH: True, but to return to the earlier point, what I have in mind is less corpo­rate sponsorship of universities as the adoption of corporate models by administra­tors. Part-time workers are obviously a lot cheaper than tenure-track assistant profes­sors (about $1500 a course, no benefits), and according to the New York Times, only a quarter of America’s 1.2 million professors are tenured, only about 40 percent are tenure track, which is a drop of 20 percent from twenty years ago.7 Given the creation of this migrant labor force of “freeway flyers,” how can the next generation make your program of “teaching the conflict” its project? How can it make anything its project?


GG: In most colleges and some high schools, many faculties have enough au­tonomy to implement the sort of cross-course and cross-curricular debate that “teach­ing the conflicts” entails. Nor would part-timers need to be excluded. It can happen, that is, if those faculties—or at least a critical mass within them—can be convinced that this way of teaching is more effective with students, enjoyable, and rewarding, and more stimulating (because more collegial) to their intellectual growth.

I think these teachers, full or part time or what you will, will need to be con­vinced that teaching in a more connected and collective way (as my model entails) is ultimately not in conflict with their long-range self-interest—that is, that the com­munity of debate such a way ofteaching can provide will help them get socialized into the profession, stimulate them to more and better publication, and be more effective as careerists. In other words, the supposedly self-protective, careerist strategy of deal­ing with administrators who don’t respect your teaching by dropping out, becoming an internal emigre, and tending to “your own work” is not really good careerism.

Also, I would like to think that the kind of solidarity that develops in a faculty that talks through its differences can make it a stronger collective bargaining force. The habits of isolation in which most of us are used to teaching may contribute ma­terially to our weakness in labor negotiation. Working within a culture of debate with our colleagues would figure to make us more effective in arguing for our interests than we have been. Or so it says here.


  1. “Secondary Education: Still an Ignored Market,” Profession (1996): 69-72.
  2. “What’s Happening to Sociology?” Doing Things Together: Selected Papers (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1986), 209-20.
  3. “The Scholar in Society,” Joseph Gibaldi, ed., Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Lan­guages and Literatures, 2d ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1992), 343-62.
  4. In this letter, I propose that dismissing the corporatization of the academy by blithly say­ing “That means the triumph of the McDonald’s mentality” (“Teaching Literature in the Acad­emy Today: A Roundtable,” PMLA 112 [1997], 112) dangerously underestimates both the de­gree to which education has been commodified and the threat this poses to education. Furthermore, I suggest among other strategies, “we need to explore making the case that our work is not hopelessly alien to the values and aims of the corporations and marketing consult­ants hired by many universities. Whether we like it or not, we need to learn how to talk about literary studies in the language of those who see little use for us except as teachers of technical writing. Otherwise we risk being `clownsized” (PMLA 112 [1997], 442).
  5. Social Text 51 (1997): 39-66.
  6. Patrick Healy, “A Take-No-Prisoners Approach to Changing Public Higher Education in Massachusetts,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 5 (December 1997): A41.
  7. Brent Staples, “The End of Tenure?” New York Times 29 June 1997: Section 4, p. 14.


212                            Gerald Graff and Peter C. Herman


214                            Gerald Graff and Peter C. Herman


216                            Gerald Graff and Peter C. Herman


218                            Gerald Graff and Peter C. Herman

Critics at Work: Interviews 1993-2003, ed. Jeffrey Williams (New York University Press, 2004)

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Critics at Work: Interviews 1993-2003

ed. Jeffrey Williams (New York University Press, 2004), 55-71

Only Connect

An Interview with Gerald Graff

Gerald Graff has persistently upbraided literary studies for its disconnections-of literature and criticism from society, of aca­demics from intellectual community, and of students from a co­herent curriculum. Countering what he sees as a common Amer­ican tendency to avoid conflict (as he discusses here), he has fa­mously advocated, in his succinct motto, that we “teach the conflicts.” Rather than seeing debates over the canon, theory, “political correctness,” or other contentious issues as a problem, in Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize Higher Education he argues that they are a pedagogical re­source to be exploited rather than hidden.

While he has been a prominent member of the “theory gener­ation,” Graff is an iconoclast and does not readily fit into any de­finable camps. Like Richard Ohmann (interviewed in chapter 4), Graff turns critical theory on the university itself, examining the institutional structures, history, and pedagogy of English depart­ments and forging a historically inflected and polemically charged study of the profession and institution of literature. His Professing Literature: An Institutional History, regarded as the stan­dard history of the discipline tracing debates between scholars and critics since the nineteenth century, takes to task the very in­stitutional structure of “field coverage,” which essentially quar­antines individual scholars.

Like Augie March, Graff is a loyal Chicagoan, born there in 1937, educated at the University of Chicago (B.A., 1959), and, after brief sojourns at Stanford (Ph.D., 1963) and the University of New Mexico (in his first teaching job, 1963-66), carrying out his teaching career at Northwestern (1966-91), the University of Chicago, where he held the Pullman Professorship (1991-98), and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is dean of un­dergraduate curricula (1999-) and where he joined Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins.

At Stanford, as he recalls here, Graff did graduate work with the New Critic Yvor Winters and the New York Intellectual Irv­ing Howe; his first book, Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma (Northwestern UP, 1970), which takes to task the New Criticism and other approaches for undermining “the power of language to connect us with the world,” stemmed from his dissertation written under their direction. See also Graff’s account, “Yvor Winters at Stanford” (American Scholar 44 [1957]; rpt. in Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, ed. Joseph Epstein [Basic, 1981]). In the provocative Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (U of Chicago P, 1979; with a new preface, Ivan Dee, 1995), Graff turned his sights to contemporary theory and its focus on language. A companion collection (coedited with Regi­nald Gibbons), Criticism in the University (Northwestern UP, 1985), focuses on the present divide between literary journalism and academic criticism. Alongside Professing Literature (U of Chicago P, 1987), Graff compiled (with Michael Warner) a col­lection of historical documents, The Origins of Literary Studies in America: A Documentary History (Routledge, 1988). “Criticism since 1940” (coauthored with Evan Carton), in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 8 (1996), synthesizes Graff’s views of the cycle of conflicts in and the “academicization” of criticism. Deploying his conflictual model from Beyond the Cul ture Wars (Norton, 1992), Graff has also coedited (with James Phelan) two casebooks, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy (Bedford, 1995) and The Tempest: A Case Study in Contemporary Controversy (Bedford, 1999). Most re­cently, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale UP, 2003) gives his further prescriptions for clarify­ing academic work and connecting it with the world; an excerpt appears as “Scholars and Sound Bites: The Myth of Academic Difficulty” in PMLA 115.5 (2000). See also Graff and Tompkins’s dialogue, “Can We Talk?,” in Professions: Conversations on the Future of Literary and Cultural Studies (ed. Donald E. Hall; U of Illi­nois P, 2001); Tompkins advocates cooperation rather than con­frontation.

This interview took place on 17 June 2001 in Gerald Graff’s of­fice at UIC. It was conducted by Jeffrey Williams and transcribed by Laura Rotunno, a Ph.D. student at Missouri and the manag­ing editor of the minnesota review. It originally appeared in an issue of the review on “50s Culture.”

Williams: Your early work is very polemical, and you generally attack literary critics for their detachment from society. In Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma, you take on the New Critics, and in Literature against Itself, the new developments in theory. In fact, when I started reading theory in the mid-eighties, you were known as an enemy of theory. But, later on, you became a proponent of theory. How did you come to be a supporter of theory?

Graff: Actually, I was always a supporter of theory, even before it was called “theory.” My 1963 doctoral dissertation was on poetics. What I attacked in Literature against Itself were certain new forms of theory-deconstruction, postmodernism, poststructuralism, cultural radical­ism, etcetera, which after 1975 or so became equated by a lot of people with “theory” tout court.

I did revise my views quite sharply in the mid-eighties, though, when I had read more deconstruction and poststructuralist theory and began to realize they were not what I had thought they were. I had mistakenly conflated Derrida, for example, with sixties subjec­tivist radicalism, relativism, and irrationalism. The turning point was working as editor with Derrida on the Northwestern University Press edition of his Limited, Inc., an experience that made me realize that I’d confused his ideas with vulgarized versions of deconstruc­tion promoted by some of his followers and then attacked by his critics.

Another thing that led me to change my mind was being reviewed favorably by neocons who obviously had no idea what they were talk­ing about when they pontificated about the horrors of current theory. That and going to conferences where I met some of the theorists I had savaged and realized that I found them a lot more interesting than many of those who agreed with me.

On the other hand, I think I was right in some of the objections I made in Literature against Itself about some of the uncritical claims of subversiveness made by some forms of theory and how these forms dovetail with the spirit of consumer culture. Most of Alan Sokal’s and Allan Bloom’s arguments, for example, are present in Literature against Itself, but I don’t get credit for that kind of critique anymore since I’ve moved on to other things.

Williams: To take a couple of steps back, I want to ask about your in­tellectual formation. You grew up in Chicago, went to the University of Chicago in the fifties, and other than a loop out west to Stanford for grad school and a couple of years in your first job at New Mexico, you’ve stayed in Chicago. That seems unique; I mean, I doubt many academics end up getting a job where they grew up. What was it like growing up in Chicago? Has it rooted you politically in any particular way?

Graff: As I think of it, my Chicago background, growing up hanging out in the neighborhood, playing sports, and being alienated from school and book culture, gave me a certain “outsider” perspective to­ward academia and the aestheticism of literature departments that I’ve cultivated in my work. This perspective has become especially important to me as I’ve gotten more and more into writing about ed­ucation, since I think of it as providing a link and a bridge to the many students who feel themselves to be outsiders to the intellectual culture of academia.

I think this “outsiderism” also underlies my ambivalence toward the academic Left, whose causes I tend to identify with but whose styles and attitudes often put me off. But this may be as much a gen­erational as a regional matter. Being born in 1937, I’m part of an in-be­tween generation, I think: too young to have been a New Critic, but too old for the counterculture, poststructuralism, etcetera.

Williams: I was interested to learn, when I wrote about your work for the Norton theory anthology, that while you were at Stanford, you did your graduate work with Yvor Winters and Irving Howe. What was that like? How did they influence you?

Graff: Both provided me with great-though very different-models of “committed” intellectuals, Winters as a moralist, Howe as a politi­cal critic. I, a fifties kid, was very apolitical in those days and found Winters easier to get a handle on and imitate than Howe. Both were powerful men who projected great confidence in their views, but Winters was overwhelming, a kind of Dr. Johnson type in the Great Man mold. I became fascinated by him, read everything of his I could get my hands on-his poetry as well as his criticism. At first I felt challenged to try to find a chink in his theoretical arguments about the nature of poetry; it was through Winters that I found out that there were exciting debates about such questions. Gradually, after a period of arguing with him in his office-or of me proposing argu­ments and he patiently explaining why I was wrong, as he had shown at length in this or that book or essay that I should go back and look at-I succumbed and became a card-carrying Wintersian, as the type was called at Stanford. I wrote an essay about this captiva­tion with Winters and my subsequent efforts to get out from his shadow.

Howe was more strange to me-the first New York Intellectual I had seen up close and personal. I still picture him in his small office at Stanford, his books (mostly paperbacks) in piles on the floor, and him banging away at a little typewriter propped on one of the piles, pounding out his latest piece for Dissent or Partisan Review, I assume, though I don’t think I knew much about those journals then. In any case, having Howe and Winters on my dissertation committee gave me two excellent models of critics who believed above all in the rele­vance of literature to life, and in those days (circa 1960), in which lit­erary studies was still under the sway of the New Criticism, that meant a lot. Howe and Winters had assimilated the close reading tech­niques of the New Critics but extended them in broader political and moral ways. That, I guess, is how I think of their effect on me.

Williams: After Literature against Itself, you moved on to do Professing Literature. I can see how it’s consistent with your earlier work, both in taking a metacritical view (you’ve rarely written on literature, but pri­marily on criticism, theory, and our professional practices) and in looking at how the academy affects literature. But, still, it’s relatively unique; other than Ohmann’s English in America, there were not many people focusing on the disciplinary history of English. What prompted you to do it? And what was the state of institutional studies when you took it up?

Graff: There were things like William Riley Parker’s fine essay “Where Do English Departments Come From?” which I had stumbled on

through my colleague at Northwestern, the late Wallace Douglas, who also directed me to some histories of English departments. (He also cowrote one of the chapters in Richard Ohmann’s English in America.) One that was very helpful and that I ended up drawing on a lot was of Indiana University. And there was, of course, Ohmann, even though I didn’t praise his book as much as I should have in Literature against It-selT. What for me was great about Ohmann was that he wrote about de­partment meetings and stuff that would happen in the corridors-the unofficial aspect of academic life that no one was talking about then but that he saw was very important as an index to what was going on in the institutions.

Let me back up. In the early eighties, I began accumulating materi­als toward some kind of history of English studies, probably as much as anything out of a sense of confusion about why I was doing what I was doing and where this institution had come from. I had the sense the profession must have lost touch with what it was doing at the be­ginning and I wanted to know what that was. So I had accumulated a lot of information, but I didn’t really have a way of telling the story. The initial manuscript that was sent to the University of Chicago Press told the story as one of decline, decline into the incoherence of post-structuralist theory, deconstruction, and so forth. But I didn’t have a lot of conviction in that. For one thing I didn’t believe that things had been great at some point and then fallen off. But in any case, what held the book together was a story of decline or deterioration into incoher­ence.

Chicago sent the manuscript to Jonathan Culler, and Culler said in his reader’s report that while there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, it’s unfortunate that Graff uses it all as another stick with which to beat poststructuralism. He also noted that by then a lot of people were al­ready doing that, and we didn’t need another pessimistic story. What Culler said was very good; often you get criticism that you agree with but needed someone to say.

Another idea that was swimming around came from Christopher Lasch. He had been at Northwestern in 1966-69, and I became friendly with him and read all his stuff. He was somebody who helped me shape some kind of political perspective, and he was also a very solid academic historian and social thinker. Lasch had always talked about American culture as a culture that evades conflict. I had noticed this theme in his work, that American culture for various complicated rea

sons fails to come to terms with conflict. This was the Lasch of The New Radicalism in America and The Agony of the American Left. Anyway, that theme stuck in my mind and somehow, when I got this response from Culler, I got the idea that what I was telling was really a story about conflict that had been evaded. And I began to feel that this failure of our profession to confront our conflicts was connected with the murk­iness about what it is we do. We adopt a pluralistic model that lets us study literature in any number of ways, but by not coming to terms with or asking students to come to terms with the conflicting ap­proaches or conflicting readings, we evade questions about what it is we are doing.

Williams: Hence “teaching the conflicts,” the phrase you’re probably most known for. Hearing you mention pluralism, I can’t but think of the Chicago critics and ask whether it was a reaction or an answer to the Chicago school?

Graff: I had never identified with the Chicago school, and I guess I still don’t. In a way I can see how there is a certain emphasis on debate and negotiating various pluralistic differences that I might have caught from the Chicago atmosphere. I had read some of R. S. Crane, and he became important to the story. I liked the kind of incisiveness and the kind of argumentative edge that a figure like Crane had.

Williams: Professing Literature came out in 1987, but I don’t think it’s been superseded. Do you have any updates or revisions that you’d make now?

Graff: Well, Chris Baldick and Terry Eagleton were writing good stuff around the time that I published Professing Literature. Now, I like David Damrosch’s book We Scholars a lot. It’s a critique of the isola­tionist individualism of the profession. Guillory’s Cultural Capitalism is obviously important, and Bérubé’s work on public intellectuals, and some of your own essays are important, especially in thinking out the political ramifications of our institution. John Brereton has produced an excellent documentary history of composition studies, The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College: 1875-1925.

Williams: Besides “teaching the conflicts,” “field coverage” is another phrase that you’re known for. It nicely characterizes both the cornu­copia and the isolating structure of English departments. Now it seems that everybody claims to be doing cultural studies, and inter-disciplinarity is a buzzword, which promises to break down field di­visions. On the other hand, when we hire people, we still apportion them in literary fields in basically the same old ways. Do you see field coverage dissipating under the auspices of cultural studies and inter-disciplinarity, or do you see it as still entrenched?

Graff: No, I don’t see it dissipating at all. The idea of coverage is rooted in something more primary, which is the fact that the basic unit of pedagogy is the course, which stands alone and is not connected to any other course. I have a chapter in Beyond the Culture Wars called “Other Voices, Other Rooms” about “the course fetish,” the tendency to conceive of education as basically a series of courses that aren’t con­nected with each other. I think it’s deeply ingrained in our profes­sional unconscious that teaching is a solo performance done pretty much in isolation. The notion that an education will consist of a series of courses that aren’t in dialogue with each other goes hand in hand with the field coverage model.

This is part of my argument that I don’t think I’ve gotten across very well. I’m trying to take another shot at it in the new book that I’m finishing called Clueless in Academe. The subtitle is How Schooling Ob scures the Life of the Mind. I feel my real subject all along has not been conflict but confusion and cluelessness. It’s in Professing Literature and everything that I’ve written recently: the gulf between academics and nonacademics, which I think has always been huge and is getting huger. My notion is that the incomprehensibility of academia is not be­cause of jargon or technical language, which is superficial, but because we chop up an intellectual culture into courses and, to some extent, disciplines and subjects. I’m not against courses or disciplines or sub­jects-there have to be some of these-but when you don’t connect them you render the whole thing incomprehensible.

You’ve written very interestingly in the Institution of Literature vol­ume you edited about the famous Kenneth Burke quotation about the conversation. You come to a parlor, you come late, and everyone is ar­guing about something. At first you don’t know what the argument is, but gradually you jump in and then you are part of it. I think that is where intellectual life ultimately is and what a school should look like, a connected conversation. It’s the conversation that connects acade­mia ultimately with what’s outside academia-the popular media and so forth. A disconnected curriculum wipes that conversation out of view or cuts it up into such disconnected fragments that it’s unrecog­nizable, certainly not visible as a conversation.

Williams: But Burke’s room doesn’t have much connection to the out­side; it’s a self-contained conversation. Frequently I hear academics say “academics do this,” directed at other academics, when they too are academics in their own rooms. I’ve had a number of other jobs, and I don’t find the academic world any more cut off than if you worked in a hospital or other institution. Each institution has its own internal code, but you still get your coffee at the deli down the street.

Graff: But there’s a sense in which academia pushes obscurity to an­other level. Take a hospital: it’s true that we don’t know the kind of biochemistry or whatever it is that doctors know about, but we do at least have some working conviction about what a doctor is for. That is, there is a certain commonsense understanding of what doctors do. So while, you’re right that academics aren’t any more specialized or eso­teric than any other modern occupation, there’s nevertheless a certain understanding of the function of those occupations, of what a doctor’s for, what a linebacker’s for, what a policeman is for. By contrast, peo­ple don’t know what a humanist is for, though they have more of a sense of what a management professor is for.

Williams: I think the same applies to us. We teach verbal skills, as well as the appreciation of culture, in the public view.

Graff: Yes, but our basic practices-the analysis and interpretation of texts, or the rationale for those practices-are not at all understood. And why should they be, since we don’t really discuss such questions very publicly?

Williams: I don’t think people think our job is the analysis and inter­pretation of texts, but that we’re here to teach writing and to develop an appreciation of great works of literature.

Graff: But that’s my point: there’s a wide gap between what people think we’re about and what we think. Of course, it depends on who the “we” is. There’s a kind of nebulosity about what the cultural fields do that makes them more obscure than even the sciences, which have a kind of technical rationale. That’s crucial to my argument-that we are qualitatively more incomprehensible than your average garden-variety incomprehensible professional. We don’t even think about it; we don’t talk about it, or else we assume our incomprehensibility is a normal thing, perhaps even a sign of our distinction.

Williams: Bruce Robbins talks about how professionals project an out­side world that they both appeal to but separate themselves from. In more rhetorical terms, what you’re saying is a kind of jeremiad, that we’ve fallen away from our connection to the world.

Graff: Actually, Robbins’s work is important to me, and because it’s not a jeremiad. In Secular Vocations, he argues that we’ve exaggerated the outside-inside distinction, the idea that once professionals have become insiders, they exclude outsiders. That’s become one of the common “decline” theories: that we’ve grown away from the out­side public. He argues that, on the contrary, any successful profes­sion has to internalize the outside perspective in order to be useful to its clients. And I argue virtually the same thing, that the work that has most influence on our field among insiders is work that incor­porates some outside perspective. Ohmann would be an example. Ohmann decided to look at English studies from the perspective of an outside political critic who was also an insider. So I’m not trying to bash the insiders from the point of view of the outsiders; I’m try­ing to rethink the institution as a hybrid interplay of insider and out­sider.

Williams: I think the problem is a structural one, that we judge our­selves and accrue professional standing based on research rather than teaching. But the teaching rationale has always been our public ra­tionale-I’m sure it’s declared to be in our universities’ mission state­ments-and in fact the vast majority of us at state schools experience a more direct idea of teaching.

Graff: Okay, except that we might disagree over how specialized and narrow the research model is now, and therefore how far research re­ally does clash with teaching. I make the argument that successful re­search now has to have some public impact-in order to get funded, for example-and that this fact makes research far more teachable than it once was.

In 1910 or 1920, the basic research topic in an English department was, for example, the syntax of at and ana in Old Icelandic or some­thing like that, the more specialized the better. If you made broad gen­eral claims, you sounded like a journalist or a dilettante. It seems to me that today younger professionals in the humanities are encouraged, sometimes overencouraged, to get at the big picture right away. Peo­ple ask, how is your research really going to change the way we think about health care or gender or sexuality? While we weren’t looking, the model of what counts as successful research changed. In Clueless in Academe, I quote a phrase of yours, the “journalization of criticism,”

that nicely describes what is happening. Critics-Eve Sedgwick is a good example whom I cite-write academic criticism, but of a kind that makes big quasi-journalistic kinds of claims. Though academics like Sedgwick are not accessible to wide publics, the kinds of claims they make are much more big-picture claims than the syntax of at and ana, and they get translated by journalists for news and feature arti­cles. The research model has been blown apart and is being replaced by a public intellectual model. But we don’t realize it yet and we still write and operate in ways that don’t take into account how these big-picture issues have taken over research. The point about teaching is that, insofar as research is now broad-gauged, the old conflict between research and teaching lessens.

Williams: You’ve written a lot about teaching-unlike most people who write on theory-and you mentioned to me that you recently wrote a piece with Jane Tompkins and have sat in on each other’s classes since coming to UIC. One thing I was struck with in reading “Taking Cover in Coverage” is that your conflicts model is a kind of rough sport model. You like the contact. But if you read Tompkins, she would say this is the model that damaged her and that it has a mas-culinist bias. Not everybody likes sports. How have you worked it out with Jane Tompkins?

Graff: Jane and I are team-teaching these very issues right now. I have quite a bit in Clueless in Academe about them: Is argument male? Is it ethnocentric? In a certain sense it obviously is, but it doesn’t need to be. Jane and I talk about this in our dialogue called “Can We Talk?” She argues that, before we can have good talk, we need to create safe zones where we feel enough trust in each other, enough nurturance. We aren’t going to have good talk if we feel the person we are talking to is always ready to stick the knife in, in a very gendered way. My re­sponse is to ask, “When are we going to have a safe zone? When will we know, are we safe yet?” If we wait until there is a safe zone, we are never going to have good talk, so it becomes circular. I have a long chapter on Deborah Tannen called “Two Cheers for the Argument Culture,” in which I grant what Tompkins, Tannen and other feminists have been saying, that the conditions of academic debate and public debate are often deplorably thuggish, more like insult or mud-wrestling than serious attempts to engage with others. But I point out that Tannen and Tompkins themselves performatively show the ne­cessity of entering into debate culture. They themselves are very much polemically engaged, and their gender concerns become part of the debate.

By the way, I’ve found in teaching my freshman course here at UIC to students who are not sure they want to jump into intellectual life that the question to debate or not to debate is one that really engages them. The ethnic issue emerges: Is there something antidebate about Asian culture? Some Asian students say, “Yeah, I grew up in a home where we did what our parents told us and I think that’s the right way.” Others, however, reply, “No, to get anywhere in the U.S. you’ve got to have an argument.” So a very interesting argument breaks out about argument. It’s generally my tactic to say, “If you think debate is problematic, then we have to make that part of the debate.” That, it seems to me, is what a good debate does: reflectively generate a dis­cussion of its own conditions and possibilities (which I take to be one of the messages of poststructuralism). I do think that the challenge from feminists to conflict models is important, but I see the feminists themselves involved in a contestatory-conflictual model of one kind or another. Or maybe they’re trying to change the dynamics of contes­tation from within, which is fine, but some kind of contestation is still part of the game.

Williams: One thing that I admire about your work is that you’re actu­ally putting your money down, applying what you think about edu­cation to what you do. Maybe you could talk about what you’re doing in your program here as a dean at UIC. You also mentioned earlier that you have started sitting in on other people’s classes, not to evaluate them but to see what other people do.

Graff: As I’ve already suggested, my premise-and I said this in Be­yond the Culture Wars-is that though we like to refer to an “academic conversation,” students don’t really see a conversation. They see indi­vidual profs whom they might have conversations with, but the con­versation or interaction among professors and scholars is effaced. I think it’s very hard to learn if you are always experiencing authority as a series of monologues or isolated glimpses.

Williams: Students do seem aware that one professor might be utterly different from another professor, and that they have to say different things in class or on a paper to get a good grade.

Graff: Yes, the quicker students not only immediately see that their profs are different. They also see how and what’s at stake in the differences. But most can only cope by adopting the strategy of doing whatever each prof “wants” in succession.

I’ve started to call what I want a comparative curriculum, not so much a conflictual curriculum. When we isolate one course from the next, we shut down the comparisons and contrasts. We not only ob­scure our conflicts from the students-I have spent a lot of time griping about this-but we also hide our agreements. In fact we ourselves often don’t know whether we agree or disagree. How do I know whether I agree with Fish? I don’t see what he’s saying in his class; he doesn’t see what I’m saying in mine. A lot of times it’s hard enough to tell whether you agree or disagree with your col­league even when you try to talk about it. So-this is the argument I am pushing-unless we structure education in a way that allows students to perceive (and enter into) the interactions among posi­tions, methods, and assumptions, their chances of entering our con­versations-and us entering theirs-are limited. Our isolated dy­namic basically perpetuates inclusion and exclusion. The excluded are not going to be able to get in on the game until they have the game represented to them in a way that is more connected and makes sense.

Now, how am I trying to do something about this at UIC? Well, not entirely through my instigation-it has more to do with worries about retention-but we are moving to a learning-community model. Next year for freshmen we’re instituting thematic clusters of courses. Jane Tompkins and I are both involved with this project. There will be ten cohorts of twenty-five students each taking the same courses-the same English course, the same communications course, the same chemistry course. I wrote about these learning-community models at the end of Beyond the Culture Wars, and we are going to try to put the idea into effect. I think it could help a lot. I have a palpable sense from teaching freshman here-mostly working-class kids, first-generation academics-that they are ground to pieces by having to meet different demands of different courses that aren’t correlated, and their whole sense of belonging to an intellectual community is wiped out. The course disjunctions materially impair their ability to make sense of ed­ucation, and to get through it successfully.

Williams: It’s also a material issue; a lot of them are probably working part-time jobs.

Graff: All the more reason to help them integrate their studies. Kids who work thirty to forty hours a week need a more focused curricu­lum and more help in putting it together. A lot of what I was teach­ing in English, I think, would have helped them in chemistry or physics or in someplace else. But I was in no position to provide that help because my course was segmented off from the rest. So I think the learning community will help.

Another thing I am promoting at UIC is undergraduate research. We’ve had two undergraduate research conferences in the year and a half I’ve been here, and they’ve been spectacular. I think undergradu­ate research is going to be one of the big trends in education in the next few decades and will illustrate the obsoleteness of the research-versus-teaching opposition that I spoke of a moment ago. It doesn’t make any sense to keep undergraduates out of research. One thing I noticed is that, when undergraduates become coresearchers with a professor, the usual adversarial relationship dissolves. We’re working on the same team together and it’s great. I would love to help bring about a situation here where every UIC undergraduate would be ex­pected, as part of their education, to get involved in a research project with a grad student or professor. The sciences are way ahead of the hu­manities in this respect. Kids are doing science fairs in high school. In the humanities we are still hiding our research, even though we’re doing research on hot-button topics-gender, race, class, and so forth-that are ripe for bringing undergraduates in. That’s the real paradigm shift: to wipe out the old idea that research is for graduate students and not for undergraduates.

I think another barrier that is crumbling is the one that has sepa­rated the high school and the college. The pressures to improve lower schooling in America and the pressures for greater accountability, whether you like it or not, are bringing the high school and the college closer together. Some younger academics are taking the lead and working with high school students and high school teachers. I think that’s a tremendous opportunity. It’s also obviously a potential trap, since one could say, “Well, you’re no longer going to be able to collect your salary by just teaching four courses or six courses; you’re going to have to go out and do more.” High school outreach could become a way of squeezing more work out of people for less money and further proletarianizing the professoriate. On balance, though, the collaborations arising between colleges and high schools seem a very promis­ing thing.

Williams: To look backward instead of forward, I’m struck by the fact that the generation of people who brought us the thing called theory-you, Fish, various other people-are coming to the end of their ca­reers. Theory was the name of the game, whereas now it doesn’t seem to be. What do you make of what’s happened to theory?

Graff: Well, I guess I wouldn’t say that it’s no longer the name of the game. I suppose what’s set in in the last ten or fifteen years is some­thing like what set in with the New Criticism. New Criticism didn’t go away; it became part of “normal science.” It’s the bedrock practice of most teaching; it’s still predominant in the schools. I think that some­thing similar happened with theory. If theory no longer seems au courant, it’s because it’s been naturalized, normalized, so that we take for granted certain notions of interrogating concepts. It’s taken for granted that “literature” is no longer seen unproblematically as a thing that isn’t in some way produced by institutional conditions and historic variables. But current academic scholarship is still very much operating within the kinds of paradigms that were set by the theorists, don’t you think?

Williams: Yes and no. I would agree that theory has permeated our discourse, but, on the other hand, I see a turn to a more belletristic ra­tionale-what I’ve called “the new belletrism.” That isn’t quite as pos­itive or celebratory as seeing a turn to the public intellectual.

Graff: I tried to talk you out of calling your essay “The New Bel-letrism,” because “belletrism,” it seems to me, invites confusion. I think what you were describing is not belletrism so much as a closing of the gap between academic writing and more publicly accessible kinds of writing-journalism as well as personal writing and autobi­ography. Your phrase “the journalization of criticism,” I think, names the phenomenon a little better. And I have been trying to argue in the new book that professors and journalists are now in the same game. In fact, that’s one reason why professors and journalists are often at odds. Whereas at one time they looked at each other from a distance with a kind of mutual scorn, I think now the scorn is rooted in how close they are, as competitors in the cultural explanation busi­ness. And this is more or less inevitable once academia took on, in a big way, the business of explaining the contemporary. Scholars

now-even people working on the past, like Greenblatt-reinterpret the past in the light of the contemporary. We are much more involved than academics were fifty or sixty or a hundred years ago in being ex­plainers of contemporary life. And that’s why we’re quoted so often, why academic research is quoted so often, even by journalists; we’re in the same ballpark. That may have been, in some ways, a reaction against the kind of esoteric qualities of theory, but you could also see it as a move toward taking those esoteric theories and turning them into more journalistically accessible terms.

Let me cap off this discussion with one example. Nightline did a program a couple of nights ago on an archaeologist, who, through analysis of ancient relics going back millions of years, has come out with the argument that the image we have of prehistoric man-the caveman classically depicted in National Geographic-is wrong. The as­sumption was that their economy and survival were based on the men going out and slaying big animals-throwing their spears into huge mastodons-which meant that male strength was extremely impor­tant, and that the women huddled together and raised the babies and did a little farming. Well, these scientists now claim that’s nonsense. In fact, the evidence suggests that primitive economies were based on hunting down rabbits, getting them in nets and skinning them, and that women and children were doing this as much as men. They would have been crazy to take on mastodons and huge beasts when they could live quite nicely on rabbits. National Geographic wrote them up because it’s an important discovery, and they printed this picture which shows the women and the children with the men trapping rab­bits, but in the background you still see men throwing spears into mastodons. And the scientist explained, “Well, we went to National Ge­ographic and told them, ‘Look, the men with the mastodons, they did­n’t do that; it didn’t work that way.'” And National Geographic came back and said, “We’re sorry, but we have to report it that way, that’s what we’re all about.”

Here’s a wonderful example of what theoretically inclined people have been talking about for years: that representation is a site of strug­gle, that conflicting representations affect the construction of reality and history and make up the fabric of reality and history. I don’t know if the archaeologists were influenced by these theories of representa­tion, but, whether they were or not, this is an interesting example of how journalism is beginning to absorb academic theorizing about the contested nature of representation. The question was quite explicitly posed on Nightline: is the myth of the caveman based on a sexist at­tempt to glorify the old heroic male role? So I see that kind of dissem­ination of theory as an example of where things are going, and, given the economic plight that universities are in, maybe that’s a good rea­son for going in that direction.

Confessions of the Critics: North American Critics’ Autobiographical Moves Edited by H. Aram Veeser (Routledge, 1996), 97-102 Self-Interview

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Confessions of the Critics: North American Critics’ Autobiographical Moves

Edited by H. Aram Veeser (Routledge, 1996), 97-102



Q. You became known as a polemicist in your early work, and now you’re associated with the idea of “teaching the conflicts.” So would you say that combativeness is a deep personal motivation of your work?

A. Partly but not entirely. People think I must likeconflict because I promote it as a pedagogical and curricular strategy. In fact I dislike conflict as much as anybody. In an odd way, my interest in conflict and polemics has always been tied to a longing for community. I just don’t think a democratic community can be sustained by papering over its divisions. “Teaching the conflicts” for me is a way to get beyond the conflicts. My assumption is that the more we avoid confronting conflicts the uglier they can only get.

Q. What do you mean by your “longing for community”?

A. When I was first contemplating graduate school back in 1959, I sought advice from one of my professors about “the profession,” which seemed pretty nebulous to me. “The great thing about this job,” he said, “is nobody bothers you.” His remark has stayed with me all these years so I guess even then it must have struck me as odd. What an ambition for a profession—not to be bothered! And what a commentary on an institution that calls itself an academic “community”!

It’s the isolationism of the academic ethos that I’ve always disliked and struggled against, both in my work and personal life. That’s why, after years of being a solitary professor, I jumped at the chance to become a department chair and later a university press director, mostly just to have somebody to talk to.

Q. But aren’t you exceptional in seeing this as a problem?

A. Well, another writer who does is David Damrosch, in his new book We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University, an excerpt from which has just appeared in Lingua Franca(January/February, 1995). Damrosch argues that the university is dominated by an “ethic of alienation and aggression” that “has bred isolated and peripatetic professors, estranged from their colleagues on campus and from the communities in which they live.” Well said!

Q. Yet surely there is plenty of “community” on campus—black studies, women’s studies, neoconservatives, all sorts of groupism.

A. Yes, but these communities tend themselves to be isolationist. Damrosch writes that “all too often the groupings that form within departments and within fields actually function as anti-communities: small coteries who band together as much to ward off outside influences as to foster collaborative work.” He adds that such scholarly “anti-communities” are “essentially defensive in nature, a bonding by which an insecure subgroup tries to gain a sense of self-worth at the price of learning from divergent views.”

Q. But if academics cherish their isolation as much as you say, how could you hope ever to change things?

A. As Damrosch points out, academics are often tremendously ambivalent about “the pleasures of isolation” that they cultivate. Why else have academic conferences and symposia become so pervasive if it isn’t that they answer to a longing for community that isn’t being satisfied by their home campuses? You can sense this longing in the hyperexcited atmosphere at such events—suddenly, for a few days, here are people you can talk to about your work —metonymy in the Elizabethan lyric, or cross-dressing in the eighteenth century, or what you will. These are conversations you aren’t likely to have at home because anybody who shares your interests is probably by definition disqualified from being your colleague—they’ve already got youwho does that!

Equally pathetic is the abyss of local silence and indifference into which we academics send our publications. When we publish an article or book, you’d think our departments or colleges would look for an occasion to discuss it publicly or in a course or two (our colleagues’ research is vastly underutilized in our courses, for example). Instead, the “publishing scholar” is made to feel almost embarrassed about committing a public act, even as he or she is rewarded at salary time. Again, when you go to a conference, your publication becomes a reference point, but to make it a reference point on your home campus would be like making one out of your sex life, or your religion.

Q. Why do you think this academic “ethic of alienation and aggression” has taken root, if in fact it has?

A. Damrosch hints at a reason when he speaks of the “insecure” status of the academic subgroups that bond together against the threat of outsiders. Academic culture is grounded in insecurity and fear—as any environment would be where the rules are revised so frequently that nobody can be sure where one stands, where in fact revising “the paradigm” before your competitors do it is the name of the game. Students fear professors, those distant and unfathomable beings whose arbitrary laws change from course to course without notice; professors fear students, who can humiliate them by their mere silence and passivity; professors fear their colleagues as rivals and competitors. Because the university provides no institutional arena for discussing these fears out in the open, they get channeled into the self-protective, isolationist behavior Damrosch describes. Of course, all this could be as readily said about American culture as about academic culture.

Q. What about administrators?

A. It’s their job to manage the economy of fear while also being objects and subjects of it. When American universities became large bureaucratic and professionalized institutions at the turn of the century and the relatively common culture of Christian gentlemen was replaced by specialized disciplines that were largely opaque to each other and to the public, academic administration emerged as the art of neutralizing fear and contention by keeping potentially clashing groups separate. This usually means appeasing clashing individuals and groups by giving each their separate space—a new course, a new department, a new program, eventually a new building. The administrative premise is that professors are brilliant children who obviously can’t be expected to cooperate with one another and have to be kept apart. Consequently, professors tend to behave like children, if not always brilliant ones.

Q. This begins to sound like the accounts in your books of the origins of the “cafeteria counter” curriculum.

A. Yes. The American curriculum has evolved in very much the same way as the American city: when a threatening innovation appears, it is neutralized by the device of adding a new “suburb”—the new course, department, building, or whatnot. This conflict-free method of assimilating change goes hand in hand with a tacit philosophy of armed truce: I won’t interfere with what you want to teach or study if you don’t interfere with me. Since frank public discussion across the differences is assumed by definition to be impossible, this state of uneasy peaceful coexistence has to be held together by bureaucratic administration, which becomes a substitute for intellectual community. The bureaucratic art of crisis management aims not to create a vital community out of the academy’s controversies, but to keep clashing factions isolated so they won’t wash their dirty linen in public.

Q. For example?

A. A recent case in point is the celebrated battle over the “Cultures, Ideas, and Values” requirement at Stanford, which was “resolved” by creating separate course-tracks for traditionalists and revisionists so that no communication need take place between the two. When Stanford revised the requirement it was widely reviled by conservatives like William J. Bennett for caving in to pressure from multiculturalists and other insurgent groups. But if Stanford “caved i n ” to pressure, it caved in to pressure from all the factions involved, including the conservatives. In a familiar academic “Let’s Make a Deal” game, a more or less multicultural track was established to satisfy multiculturalists while several more or less traditional tracks remained to appease traditionalists. I oversimplify, but I think I fairly describe what took place.

The dispute was resolved, in short, by creating separate but equal curricula, or separate but not so equal, depending on which faction you talk to. By evading the issues that divided the community Stanford managed to neutralize them for a while, but now, five years later, the whole battle has predictably erupted again.

The excuse for this kind of refusal of community is that it at least preserves peace and quiet, but it really does so only in the short run. In the atmosphere of repressed conflict, poisonous fear, hatred, and paranoia build and erupt periodically, as we see in recent flare-ups over hate speech, demands for ethnic studies programs, and political correctness. And of course now a shrinking economy is depriving universities of the luxury of avoiding fear and conflict by adding new “suburbs.”

Q. How is all this related to your critique of what you’ve call “the course fetish”?

A. For me the academic course, which so frequently idealized in the rhetoric of community, is in some ways the ultimate expression of Damrosch’s anticommunity. The academic course does create a kind of community, but it does so at the expense of another, given the structural requirement that no course be aware of what goes on in any other course, that the left hand not know what the right is doing. That is, instructors must not know that the signals they send to students conflict in all kinds of ways, for again, dealing with such a recognition would require confronting repressed fears and accepting the responsibility of community. So it’s important that we stay safely inside the protection of our courses. Of course, students have no such protection, being exposed every day to their teachers’ conflicts in a way that their teachers are not.

Q. Your call for community makes you sound at times like Jane Tompkins, who has been writing (in essays like “ Me and My Shadow” and “Pedagogy of the Distressed”) about the competitive individualism and lack of community in academic institutions.

A. Yes, and I share Tompkins’ complaint up to a point. But I’m not attracted to the kind of community Tompkins seems to want, which is emotional or physical rather than intellectual. For Tompkins intellectuality-argumentation, debate, analysis, reasoning-seems to be inherently selfish, competitive, and antithetical to the emotions and the body, part of the problem rather than part of the solution. For me the antidote to Damrosch’s academic anticommunities lies in reconstructing rather than abandoning intellectualcommunity, which need not and should not exclude emotion and the body.

Q. What about the view of some feminists that that model of aggressive argumentation is essentially male?

A. It’s interesting that those feminists don’t hesitate to use aggressively “male” argumentation in asserting that view when it suits them. Like Tompkins, such feminists (who do not speak for all feminists by any means) assume that community and intellectual argumentation are inherently incompatible. As if to make the critiques of demagogues like Christina Hoff Sommers look respectable, this thinking produces touchy-feely classrooms in which students get in touch with their own “voices” instead of learning to analyze, criticize, or make an argument. Teachers who practice this species of feminist pedagogy (which again must not be confused with feminist pedagogy as such) are in effect withholding from their students the cultural capital of argumentative discourse that they themselves command.

Q. But haven’t womens’ studies programs established alternative models of community to the isolationism you attack?

A. They’ve made a start, to be sure. But unless womens’ studies programs themselves are put into regular dialogue with other sectors of the university, they become another of Damrosch’s anticommunities, closing themselves off from threatening outsiders. It’s unfair, however, to single out womens’ studies and other new “revisionist” fields for “separatism,” since these new fields are merely copying the time-honored, respectable separatism of established academic departments, whose maxim has always been: consolidate your own turf and wall yourself off from anybody who might disagree with you. In other words, my problem with the new politically oriented fields is not that they’re acting like subversives but that they’re acting like traditional academics.

Q. Are you suggesting a change in the culture war strategy of the academic Left?

A. Yes. The Left has achieved an impressive degree of academic power and solidarity (though nowhere near as much of either as its critics attribute to it). But the power and solidarity on the Left have been achieved by circling the wagons and talking primarily to itself rather than to outsiders. “Cultural studies,” for example, has become a euphemism for Left Studies, meaning in effect that no admirers of Matthew Arnold need apply. Quite apart from the dubious ethics of such behavior, this strategy of preaching to the already converted may be successful awhile longer within the university, but it seems disastrous outside, where the Left is losing the struggle for the middle to the Right.

I think it’s time therefore that the academic Left reopened negotiations with the rest of the university instead of occupying positions of “oppositional” purity. It’s in the interests of the Left, in other words, to help create a real academic community (not just a subcommunity of opposition), in which it would be able to speak to others besides itself. Now that the main opponent is the Christian Coalition and the Contract with America, even academic “traditionalists” and “radicals” may have interests in common.

A. It’s all well and good to talk about “community,” but wouldn’t such community seem intolerably coercive to those academics who unequivocally like their privacy or isolation?

Q. I wouldn’t deny privacy to anyone. I just don’t see why the whole university has to be organized to suit the people who want to avoid having a discussion!








Anthologies, Literary Theory and the Teaching of Literature: An Exchange

Anthologies, Literary Theory and the Teaching of Literature: An Exchange

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Gerald Graff  and Jeffrey R. Di Leo 



Volume 8, Numbers 1-2, (2000), 113-28

University of Nebraska Press


Di Leo:

You’ve thought a great deal about the institutionalization and professionalization of literary studies in America. What role have anthologies played in the institutionalization and professionalization of literary studies?


The roles and effects are obviously multiple and over-determined, but let me start, being the curmudgeon I am, with one of the worst pedagogical results of literature anthologies: legitimating the primacy of literary texts and their supposed transparency, and obscuring the importance of criticism and interpretation (not even to mention theory) for the literature classroom.

Di Leo:

Why does foregrounding the significance of criticism and interpretation make you a curmudgeon? I would say just the opposite. I don’t think that teachers have really thought enough about how to incorporate theory into the teaching of literary texts. The result is either a misappropriation of theory and criticism in their classroom, or an avoidance of theory and criticism in the classroom. The worst instance of the former is what I call the “cookie cutter approach” to theory which works something like this: apply literary theory “A” to literary text “B”. Result: a valid interpretation of literary text “B” (and a successful use of literary theory “A”). On this strategy, students think that criticism and theory is some kind of game wherein points are scored for the production of valid interpretations. Textbooks like many of the volumes in the Bedford series in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism that have primary texts along with selections like “What is Deconstruction?” and “What is Feminism?” promote this type of trivial use of theory, albeit I think unwittingly. In other cases, theory and criticism is entirely avoided in the classroom either because it is perceived by the teacher to be beyond the ken of the students, or because the teacher wants to promote the illusion that literary studies just involves a close reading of the primary literary text at hand.


I agree. Students and teachers who pick up an anthology get the illusion that studying literature is a matter of closely reading a bunch of primary texts and letting those texts in themselves somehow tell them what to say about the texts in class and in student writing. This obscures, conceals, and mystifies the fact that what we say about a literary text, though certainly accountable to the text itself—and this is important in ways I hope we can pursue—is generated not by the text but by the critical questions we ask about it. These questions come from the secondary conversation of readers and critics rather than from the text itself.

Di Leo:

I like this as a general way of approaching the teaching of literature, but worry about placing the onus of criticism on the asking of the right critical questions. For me, questions can both lead us to find new aspects of the text at hand as well as delimit our discovery of the text. I’d put the emphasis on the “conversation” part of your comment, rather than the “critical question” part. We should encourage our students to enter a conversation about a text. Specifically, the members of this conversation are the people who have written and commented on this text. The student can gain entry into this conversation only by acknowledging the scholarship of its members. His or her questions should concern the terms of the discussion, its assumptions and its conclusions. The arbiter in the conversion should be the literary text in question. In this context, the approach to literary texts is one of entering a discourse community or discussion of the text. Students should recognize that the questions they ask about the text are determined by the terms, assumptions and conclusions of the discourse community concerning the text. These questions are “critical questions” because they are meaningful within a particular critical context, not because they are questions in an anthology or what are perceived to be perennial questions.


Anthologies tend to efface the mediating intervention of criticism in literary study by reducing criticism to its dullest common denominator—informational headnotes and footnotes, arbitrary questions for study, etc.—thereby propping up the illusion that responding vividly to a literary work is fundamentally a stripped down encounter of the student up close to the text, with the critical conversation about the text factored out or even seen as an unwelcome form of professional interference.

Di Leo:

I never thought about this before, but I think that you are right. A strong case can also be made that headnotes and footnotes short-circuit entry into a critical discourse community. One way that they can do this is by leading the student to believe that these headnotes and footnotes are sufficient conditions of entering this community. If I read the headnote, then I have the necessary background information to enter into a critical dialogue with the text. Perhaps even more dangerously though they can lead the student to believe that this is all that is worthwhile to say about the text. Students have little understanding of the process of editing a textbook, and tend to believe that if it is in the textbook, then it is all that they need to know to read it. There is a myth then about the sufficiency of editorial marginalia that cuts against the inclination to either supplement the anthology marginalia with more secondary materials or that there are other important things to say about this text.


Anthologies thereby help produce the transparency illusion that I’m talking about—that what teachers and students try to do in their classroom responses to literature is produce how the primary literary works would speak for themselves if they could speak criticism.

Di Leo:

It’s funny that you should mention the transparency illusion because my experience seems to confirm what you say. During the course of my introductory course on theory and criticism, I generally have the students compare Jean-Paul Sartre’s “What is Literature?” and Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero. Not because I have to, but because it allows me to discuss the relative transparancy and opacity of literature. I tell the students that transparancy is the belief that literature is like a window to the world, whereas opacity makes literature out to be more like a wall that we cannot see through. Most agree with Sartre that literature should be like a window, and consequently, they tend to both read it this way and value literature that they believe is more “transparent.” Literature should reveal what it has to say. If not, it is in some way lacking. Reading otherwise is relatively unfamiliar to them. I think that this is more than anything else a consequence of the way that they have been trained to read and write about literature because with only marginal effort, I can help them to begin reading differently.


The explicative papers most commonly assigned presumably represent what John Milton’s “Lycidas” or John Keats’ Odes or Toni Morrison’s Beloved would say if they could speak in critical talk—which is why students aren’t expected in such papers to bring any critical conversation (it’s assumed they are better off not knowing about such conversations, or aren’t ready for them yet) to bear on the text and thereby to pose a problem about the text. Am I making any sense here?

Di Leo:

You are making a lot of sense here, and are perhaps speaking to at least one tacit belief shared by many practitioners of literary studies today which most would be rather embarrassed to acknowledge: namely, that the most widely used anthologies today are grounded in fundamental ways on New Critical ideologies of the text, or, more generally, in the tradition of explication of the text.


Yes, especially the assumption that the best way to initiate inexperienced readers into literary study is through an ideally preconceptionless close reading of the text itself, with as little mediation by supposedly “external” factors as possible. This assumption is preposterous, but it remains foundational to literary pedagogy even for many otherwise cutting edge professors.

Di Leo:

Well, then they really aren’t cutting edge then are they? It seems to me that their pedagogy has more in common with New Criticism than new frontiers in criticism.


This thinking is New Critical, yes, but it predates New Criticism, and is found in anti-New Critics like Allan Bloom, i.e., the view that texts in themselves tell us what to say about them, so who needs criticism, theory, etc., and historical context can be covered in anthology headnotes and footnotes.

Di Leo:

I agree that this approach to texts predated New Criticism, and that there are positions coeval with New Criticism like Bloom’s that support similar strategies. However, Bloom and others were not major forces in the shaping of the contemporary literary studies pedagogy. Both the traditions of New Criticism and explication of the text (à la Eric Auerbach) first and foremost asserted the primacy of the text. Literary studies begins (and in some sense ends) with the selection of the “right” set of texts according to these traditions. If one has the right text before them, then “criticism” and “interpretation” is simply a matter of paying close attention to what this text “says.” If the text has the “right stuff” (New Critics say that this would be things like irony, tension and paradox, whereas the more advanced contemporary critic would say that this would be things like race, class, gender and sexuality), then a successful interpretation of the text necessarily follows from its close reading.


Exactly, though again I think New Criticism should not take the rap for a view that is older and more pervasive than any one school. If the text has “the right stuff,” as you say, it will in itself induce an appropriate critical response in the student brain, and if it doesn’t, it’s the student’s fault for not reading carefully enough. That’s why it’s so important in this view to read texts that have the right stuff, ones that have passed the test of time, etc., though as I say canon revisionists hold versions of this view too.

Di Leo:

Yes, but their power in the formation of the English department curriculum, pedagogy and canon was not close to that of the New Critics. I would maintain that even though the progressive contemporary critic of the text is concerned with implicating the text with cultural and political concerns, their pedagogical strategies of focusing on the close-reading of the right choice of primary texts does not move far beyond ideologies of the text that they would view as reactionary.


In many cases, yes.

Di Leo:

Isn’t it true that informational headnotes and footnotes direct the students (and teachers) toward what the text is “supposed” to be saying to them, and study questions make sure that the student does not drift far from this text as the locus of their critical attention? In other words, doesn’t the editorial marginalia support this reactionary view of texts and textuality?


Generally yes, though I think the headnotes and footnotes are seen not as directing the student toward what the text is supposed to be saying to them so much as they are the preliminary background information the student needs in order to make sense of the text and therefore, at the next stage, be able to emit in their critical response what the text wants him or her to say about it.

Di Leo:

Anthologies continue to legitimate and reinforce the primacy of literary texts even if the domain of what is a (literary) text has shifted and the range of things that texts (should) “say” has changed. The “new” progressive cultural studies canon of texts is anthologized as though it speaks to the student much the same way as the “old” reactionary great books canon did with the proviso that what it “says” is different. This, of course, is the message that is legitimated by anthologies that update their selection of the texts while failing to alter their presentation of these materials.


Yes again.

Di Leo:

So, I tend to agree with what you say, but have two related sets of questions for you. First, what is the alternative to anthologies which, as you say, “obscure, conceal, and mystify the fact what we say about a literary text is generated not by the text, but by the critical questions we ask about it”?


Anthologies and case-books that provide students with critical conversations about literary texts that the students can enter and see the point of entering. These are very hard to produce, since most academic criticism and even Sunday book-reviewing is not addressed to students, but presupposes an initiated audience.

Di Leo:

The Beford volumes that I mentioned earlier don’t seem to give the student a good reason to enter the conversation or even a good point of entry. For example, Ross Murfin’s edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1996, 2nd ed.) for Bedford anthologizes five “perspectives” on the text: reader-response, feminist and gender criticism, deconstruction, New Historicist, and cultural criticism. Using this “cookie cutter approach” to theory in fact even seems to turn students off to theory and criticism. For them, it just amounts to a clever response to a text, and the point of making it is remote aside from the grade that one might gain from it. Part of the weakness of editions like Murfin’s is not that they use theory, but that they give very little indication of why anyone would believe that this theory is important or significant, and from whence it came.


The Bedford “critical controversy” texts of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1995) and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2000) that Jim Phelan and I have co-edited are an attempt to produce such texts that provide students with critical conversations about the text that they can enter along with the texts. My sense is that we’ve succeeded only unevenly at this goal, but we’re still working on it.

Di Leo:

I think that the strengths of these two textbooks are quite obvious. I have used the Huckleberry Finn volume, and can tell you that students feel as though they have entered a critical conversation on Huckleberry Finn, and that they are thereby licenced to interpret, or at least ask critical questions. However, what are the weaknesses that you see in these two textbooks?


I think they tend to be too difficult for students who don’t already command the vocabulary and conventions needed for entering critical discussions and debates, especially ones who are uneasy about debates and arguments of any kind.

Di Leo:

I tend to agree with you concerning the difficulty, but also think that it is a good opportunity for the students to learn the vocabulary and conventions through critical practice. Too often the vocabulary of critical theory is presented in isolation from critical practice. The recent glut of “dictionaries” of modern literary and cultural criticism only further validates this practice, and encourages it. If one side errs on the side of the primacy of the text, the other errs on the side of the primacy of the theory—or at least, theoretical vocabulary. As observers of critical practice, one of the ways in which students can gain entry into critical controversies is simply by asking questions about the vocabulary of the piece. What does s/he mean by “hegemony”? What is “patriarchy”? This allows the student, unwittingly, to enter the debate through their demand for clarity and understanding. From their growing understanding of the meaning of the terms, and their conventional use in critical practice, the students can then build up to more complex questions concerning the foundations of critical theory including its key assumptions. Good anthologies will present critical readings that allow this kind of entry by the student into the conversation. Another key here is the willingness of the instructor to entertain the same bemusement as the student with the vocabulary and conventions of the critical practice. There must be a willingness on the part of both the instructor and the student to actively engage the critical practice with the end of not only understanding its general position on the text at hand, but also in terms of the meaning of its vocabulary and the nature and assumptions of its mode of argumentation.


The first time I assigned the Huck text, in a mid-level undergraduate course at the University of Chicago, I felt that for some of the students several of the critical essays were too long and complicated. Some also expressed the view that Twain had written the book to entertain, so it was therefore perverse to pick it apart and quibble over it in a solemn academic way. They invoked Twain’s opening warning that readers who find a moral in the story will be banished.

Di Leo:

I agree with you about the length of the critical essays. For various reasons, I think it is important for today’s student that the selections be as brief as possible. Of course this is no excuse for including trivial or shallow commentaries, but it is a mandate to select critical articles that conform to the temperament and reading capacities of today’s students. Nothing is worse than selecting a good article for your students only to have them come to class saying that it was too long and complicated, therefore they gave up on it. I always think that it is better to err on the side of a shorter piece, with a tighter argument, than a longer piece with a more profound but also looser argument. Providing students with successful engagements with critical theory encourages them to take on more complicated and longer pieces later in the course. Textbooks which are organized according to such principles are more useful in the classroom, and address some of the objections to critical theory at their source.


As it happens, Phelan and I “empowered” such objections in our introduction to students when we noted that Twain might seem to agree with some disaffected literature students that literature is to be read for fun and not for the “hidden meanings” you can get out of it. Some of my students found that so convincing a position that I had to spend considerable time in class making a case for finding serious issues like racism in the book, as well as for debating how they are handled. I ended up feeling that for students who aren’t already insiders to lit-crit discourse, something more basic is needed, a text that would present criticism, critical debate, and their justifications with fewer assumptions taken for granted.

Di Leo:

But can’t this be done by closely studying the criticism? In other words, perhaps it is the case that the criticism presumes things that do not hold in the primary text. If this is so, then shouldn’t we be obligated to pursue this with the students even if it risks derailing a “contemporary controversy” like racism or the homo-eroticism of Huckleberry Finn? This opens the door for more serious general questions as to how and why we validate readings of the Twain classic. Should we respect them just because they are anthologized? Or do they need to “prove” themselves irrespective of their position in the contemporary critical landscape. Sometimes the naiveté of students with regard to these questions can turn the teacher into the student: what we take to be the topoi of critical practice regarding texts like Huckleberry Finn becomes empty and unsubstantiated academic talk. It also brings us to even more important questions: Why do we read? What is it to read with understanding? What it the role of the critical community in answering these questions? Entering a discussion of contemporary debates on Huckleberry Finn need not be an exercise in validation of the debate. However, it need not also be an opportunity for the students to exercise their penchant for emotive and subjective responses to the text. In any event, isn’t it the case that anthologies are still being published with headnotes and arbitrary questions because teachers use them and even demand them?


Yes, but then it’s also the case that many of the same teachers have cut back on their expectations for what most students will be able to do—i.e., it’s generally not assumed that more than a minority of A-students will really enter the critical conversation about literature, that is, that it’s okay if the rest get turned on by some books and respond vividly. If they can’t produce a literate version of critical discourse, then, well, that’s only to be expected.

Di Leo:

But entering the critical conversation is not the same as producing a literate version of it. A student can read a bunch of articles on Huckleberry Finn, and ask some questions that they never would have asked without reading them, but at the same time, most all of them would be hard pressed to produce a version of the conversation.


Right, which is what I was trying to get at above—if it’s a “literate version” of the conversation that we want from students, and I don’t think we’re doing them justice if we settle for less, then it’s a problem if the gap between the critical debate and the level at which students appropriate and respond to it remains large. I think that simplifying the debate helps to close that gap and eventually helps students become more sophisticated down the road.

Di Leo:

My other question from above is why do you think that there is still such a strong at least tacit belief among teachers of literature today in the primacy of the text? Why is this still the case despite the belief by many of these same teachers that we are in the age of cultural and critical studies with its concomitant devotion to the gendering, socialization, racialization, and sexualizing of the literary text?


In a way I’m a believer in “the primacy of the text,” in the sense that my reading of any text—your questions here, say—has to be guided by or accountable to the text I’m reading. But I don’t confuse this kind of primacy—accountability to the text—with sufficiency. I think there’s a lot of confusion about this issue, which we don’t after all discuss very much, plus a lot of residual Platonism, plus the fact that if we committed ourselves to teaching criticism, i.e., seeing that that’s what “teaching literature” entails, teaching students how to speak and write criticism, we’d have to do some work to figure out how to clarify the culture of criticism for students, and of course we’re already overworked.

Di Leo:

Well if New Critics are not entirely to blame, then neither are the Platonists! What do you mean by “accountability to the text” and how is it disassociable from the idea of the “primacy of the text”? It seems to me that the former assumes the latter.


I’m glad you ask—a key question. By accountability to the text I meant the responsibility we have as readers to read the text on its own terms, or to put ourselves in the author’s shoes; by the primacy of the text (perhaps not the most precise phrase) I meant the fallacy that the text tells us what to say about it. These notions are often confused, so that if you deny, as I do, that a text tells us what to say about it you may be accused of (or praised for) denying that we can or should read a text on its own terms. Traditionalists make this mistake from the right, accusing you of relativism if you argue that texts don’t tell us what to say about them; theory people make this mistake from the left, accusing you of retrograde objectivism if you argue that readers can or should read texts on their own terms.

Di Leo:

Let me see if I understand you correctly: asserting accountability to the text means that we are obligated to interpret the text with an eye towards the cultural, biographical, and societal forces inscribed in the text though not necessarily openly revealed by the text, whereas asserting the primacy of the text means that we are obligated to interpret the text with the knowledge that everything that we can know about the text will be told to the active reader by the text. The difference is that the former does not tell you how you should read the text, whereas the latter does. Both positions focus on the text as the center of critical understanding of the text, but one emphasizes the text as the be all and end all of criticism (the primacy view) by telling us the method of interpreting it as well as its meaning, whereas the accountability view says that while a text says what it means, it cannot tell us how to determine what it says (the method of interpreting it). Have I got it right?


Let me give a primitive example: someone who read a restaurant menu as an epic poem would be refusing accountability to the text, i.e., misreading it. One could even say that the menu says to its readers, “read me as menu, not as a poem.” But it doesn’t follow that the menu tells anyone how to describe it in a given situation, which depends on the context and involves selection from the infinite number of possible things that can be said about any object. If my audience already knows the text is a menu, or if the question I’m asked is “what color is that text?” it would make no sense for me to answer—“it’s a menu.” The point has relevance to the selection of what to pick out to notice and talk about when we teach and study literature. Teachers who think texts tell us what to say about them have trouble seeing why their students fail to see what they see in those texts: here the text is signalling the students what to say about it and the student is mute or confused or says the wrong things, so the problem presumably is in the student. In fact, having a sense of what to say about a text, what aspects or problems to pick out, requires familiarity with the critical conversation about the text. When we expect students to make statements about literature without reading criticism (the anthology-effect), we’re asking students to enter a critical conversation that’s withheld from them, or to produce criticism without reading any.

Di Leo:

But isn’t it also true that according to the accountability view of texts, it is very well the case that some “contemporary critical debates” concerning them are inconsistent with reading the text on its own terms? While issues of gender might be on the forefront of our critical attention, and have generated a lot of critical controversy, still they might not have crossed Twain’s mind? It seems to me that this is one of the implications of your position.


Yes, quite so. In saying that we have to read the text on its terms I didn’t mean to suggest that we can’t or shouldn’t also read it on our terms, or in the light of contexts and issues that weren’t of concern to the author at all. In fact, this doubleness structures reading: when we read a text we’re concerned with its or its author’s questions (I’m eliding that distinction for the moment) and with our questions that stem from our own interests and biases or from problems that have arisen after the text was written (how does the glorification of war in the Iliad look in the wake of 20th century carnage?). In saying that texts don’t tell us what to say about them, I was trying to say that the text in itself doesn’t tell us which of the author’s questions we should talk about, much less which of our own questions.

Di Leo:

But even though a critical controversy may be a hot one today, it is also possible that this controversy is not accountable to the text. Maybe this is what your students were getting at when they doubted a “controversy” about race and racism in Huckleberry Finn?


This in fact is exactly what they thought: since racism is more of a hot issue for us today than it was for Twain (doubtful, but let’s concede them that premise), we’re misreading his text if we read it as being centrally about racial issues. Their skepticism was even more pronounced toward our section on gender issues: since feminist issues are of interest to us now more than they were to Twain, we’re misreading his text if we ask how it deals with gender. I tried to convince them that one is not necessarily misreading a text—failing to be accountable to it—when one raises questions about it that weren’t on its or its author’s radar screen: there may have been no feminism in Shakespeare’s day, but there were men and women and socially defined gender roles that his plays reflect, problematize, or whatever. So it’s possible to be “accountable” to a text while going beyond its horizon of intentions and assumptions.

Di Leo:

You know, this doubleness that structures reading that you are talking about sounds a lot like the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Reading, for Gadamer, involves this interplay and dialogue between the past and the present. Reading a text like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn prompts us to ask questions about our own interests and biases. We, in turn, bring these questions and biases to bear on the text of Huckleberry Finn. Understanding this text involves our ability to reconstruct the question to which it was an answer. For Gadamer—and it sounds like for you as well—understanding is productive, and meaning is never exhausted by the author’s intentions. This view is both consonant with your position on accountability to the text as well as with your rejection of the primacy of the text. On this Gadamerian model, it would make sense to anthologize readings of Huckleberry Finn that were firmly identifiable with our own interests and concerns, and to use them to dialogue with Twain’s text. The understanding here would be that we are not trying to understand in any absolute sense what Twain meant in Huckleberry Finn, but rather are trying to understand what Twain meant in Huckleberry Finn relative to our own interests and biases. Better anthologies will contain materials that allow for us to do this, whereas worse anthologies will present Twain’s book as though the absolute meaning of it were possible or as though it could speak for itself. What do you think? How much of a Gadamerian at you at heart?


Not much of one, I’m afraid. My impression is that Gadamer’s notion of horizon-fusion fogs over rather than usefully problematizes the distinctions between past and present and subject and object. My own view is that it’s constitutive of making sense of reading that we assume the distinctions between past and present and subject and object. My own view is that it’s constitutive of making sense of reading that we assume the possibility of distinguishing between what Twain meant (though I’d say that’s a matter of probable inference, not of absolute certainty) and how we view that meaning in the light of our own interests and biases. That is, it seems to me that we need to be able to distinguish between the author’s and his culture’s questions and our own questions in order to bring these things together fruitfully. In other words, a degree of objectification, of the otherness of the author, has to be assumed. I don’t think Gadamer and other Heideggerians allow this objectification—the past for them is always already inseparable from the present, i.e., there’s no getting at what Twain inferrably meant as a subject independent of us. I think this confuses an already vastly confused issue which we evade rather than confront in teaching (mea culpa too), leaving students grasping at cliches like “we can’t know the author’s intention,” “literature’s always ambiguous,” etc. But maybe I’ve misread Gadamer and Heidegger on this point. I’ve always found their writings murky.

Di Leo:

Well it is probably best not to get into a debate at this point as to what Gadamer did nor did not mean in Truth and Method or the relative “murkiness” of Gadamer and Heidegger on this subject, but it would be interesting to hear who you view as your predecessors in terms of pedagogical method? Or should I say say, “anthological method”? If not Gadamer, whose work most strongly has influenced your own take on the shape and directions anthologies should assume to be most effective in the classroom? What did you take from their work? Do you view your own position to be more novel than derivativive? Or more derivative than novel?


Tough questions. I sided with E. D. Hirsch against Gadamer/ Heidegger back in the fun old days when the current fault lines were opening up around questions of the objectivity and/or historicity (and subsequently the politicality) of interpretation. Hirsch unfortunately has since then compromised himself with his questionable arguments about cultural literacy and education, and in retrospect I think there were problems with his theories of interpretation, but I still agree with him that to think of reading in a coherent way there needs to be some kind of distinction between what Hirsch calls “meaning” and “significance” (or what the author can be inferred to intend), and how the reader recontextualizes that intention in the light of his or her or a different period’s interests, which may involve reading it against the grain. This argument amounts to a reassertion (a sophisticated one, I hope) of the old subject-object distinction that I gather Gadamer and Heidegger would dissolve into historicity or Being or what have you. The whole argument is fascinating, and remains unresolved.

Di Leo:

But Hirsch as well was not immune from the “fogging of the issue” that you ascribe to Gadamer and Heidegger. His distinction between “meaning” and “significance” heavily draws on Husserl’s notion of an “intentional object.” Meaning for Hirsch is not reducible to the psychological acts of Twain, nor is it independent of the mental processes of the author of Huckleberry Finn. Hirsch’s “meaning” is some type of ideal object that can be expressed in a number of different ways, and still “mean” the same thing. For me, this is just as foggy a notion as the fusion of horizons thesis of Gadamer. However, regardless of the relative fuzziness of these ideas, why keep the allegiance to the “meaning” side of Hirsch’s equation? Why not regard language and literature as purely social matters? Or, leave them on the side of “significance” if “meaning” is destined to be a perennially fuzzy object/topic?


It’s always good to find another fan of the Hirsch/Gadamer debate, a diminishing breed, I suspect. I have always found Hirsch’s Husserlian take on meaning as an “intentional object” a bit hard to grasp, but I don’t have a problem with meaning being in principle self-identical even when expressed in different ways. Hirsch has an essay on synonymy in The Aims of Interpretation(1976) that seems to me a good defense of this idea—a no-no for New Critics and Gadamerians, to be sure—of the separability of meaning from how it’s expressed. I would like to think, though, that this Hirschean argument about synonymy is not incompatible with Derrida’s concept of “iterability,” or repetition with a difference, in “Signature Event Context.” (In Limited Inc. (1988), edited by me, Derrida’s response to me in an interview, especially pp. 142–153, makes me think this convergence may not be as improbable as it sounds). That is, for a meaning to be a meaning it has to be both itself (self-identical in Hirsch’s sense) and to differ from itself.

Di Leo:

I’m familiar with Hirsch’s essay which also appeared in the first volume of Critical Inquiry. Hirsch’s argument in “Stylistics and Synonymity” concludes that style depends on there being alternative ways of saying the same thing as well as a notion of synonymity. I think that a number of people have provided very good arguments against Hirsch’s notion of synonymity. The main thrust of these arguments is to free the theory of style from the constraints of synonymity, and misleading oppositions like style and subject, form and content, what and how, and intrinsic and extrinsic. I tend to believe that Hirsch’s notion of synonimity is too strict, as are the views of those such as Nelson Goodman who reject the notion of synonymity in toto. I would suggest that we take up a weaker sense of synonymity. Instead of “strict identity” and “sameness” that we weaken our notion of synonymity to account for the fact that while no two terms have exactly the same meaning, that some terms are closer to the meaning of others so that a choice between the two terms in a discourse situation would provide subtle shifts in meaning. This notion of synonymity would be closer to what I think Derrida finds agreeable, if anything, in Hirsch’s notion. It captures the “sameness with a difference” that you spoke of regarding Derrida’s concept of iterability. So, I can see a link between Hirsch (albeit modified) and Derrida (albeit loosely conceived).


I like the idea of “weakening” Hirschean self-identity to make it compatible with the Derridean idea that “self-identity” itself is always already constituted by difference. That’s in fact what I was trying to say myself. For an example of what we’re talking about, look at what I just did—I said the same thing as you said—we need to weaken Hirsch’s notion of self-identity—by changing it, putting it in other words, summarizing, it paraphrasing it. If I’d simply replicated your words, quoted you without restatement, what I would have produced would be not the same meaning but no meaning: summaries reproduce the same meaning by changing them, putting them into other words, but words that, in order to qualify as a summary, have to be recognizable as synonymous with the original. This seems to me a vindication of Hirsch’s argument that some notion of self-identity must be presupposed to make sense of communication, but amended by Derrida’s argument that self-identity is always constituted by difference, iteration, spin, or what have you.

Di Leo:

So what does all this have to do with literature anthologies?


Well, when I said at the outset that they tend to assume that great texts tell students and others what to say about them (i.e., they isolate the texts from the critical discourse that students are asked to produce about the texts), this was another way of saying that conventional anthologies rest on an inert notion of self-identity in which the student is somehow to reproduce the sameness of the text without the intervention of criticism, much less theory. Phelan and my “critical controversies” editions assume that the self-identity of Huckleberry Finn and The Tempest can be replicated only in interpretive controversies.

Di Leo:

So, great books are only great from within the context of interpretive controversies? If these books cannot contribute in the critical conversations of our day, then should they be overlooked? This is a recipe for a continuously shifting canon determined by a set of contingent conditions: conditions that are more times than not politically determined. How do you feel about resting literary studies and the contents of anthologies on politics?


It doesn’t follow for me that books are great only if they contribute to critical conversations and should be overlooked if they don’t. If Moby Dick is a great novel, as I think it is, it was as great when it was overlooked and ignored by the critical conversation as it was and has been seen as since its revival after World War I. There’s a sense in which a book is what it is independent of what readers and critics see in it—the flower in the forest can still be beautiful even if never seen by a human eye. Here’s where I want to preserve some notion of the objectivity of the text independent of its contextualization. The best theorist I know on this question, by the way, is John Reichert in Making Sense of Literature (1977), an unfortunately overlooked Moby Dick of literary theory. Reichert argues cogently that there’s a sense in which, if we agree that a text says or does something, then presumably it always said and did it and doesn’t stop saying and doing it from one historical period to the next. The same would follow for whether it’s good or not. Although (a big although) Reichert acknowledges that there’s also an important sense in which goodness and badness are purpose and context-relative—nothing is just good in itself but has to be good for some purpose. Whatever makes a text good or bad, then, is an objective property of the text, but the standards by which we judge it as good or bad change historically and culturally. I’m afraid I’m running over this too quickly, but Reichert lays it out well in Chapter 4 (esp. pp. 121–28).

Di Leo:

Well, I think that we should probably stop here before your comments on Reichert draw us into a long discussion on the metaphysics of literary value and related matters.


I agree.


Contribution to “Forum on Radical Teaching Now,” Radical Teacher 83, 2008:

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Contribution to “Forum on Radical Teaching Now,” Radical Teacher 83, 2008:

“From Editors’ Introduction”

“What are the conditions for teaching radically in 2008? For opening students’ minds to left, feminist, anti-racist, and queer ideas? For stimulating them to work for egalitarian change? How do opportunities for progressive teaching vary with the ages, genders, populations, and classes or students? What pedagogies have the best chance of helping students become radicals?”

Gerald Graff

I think it’s immoral for teachers to try to get students in their classes “to work for egalitarian change,” as you put it. What right do we have to be the self-appointed political conscience of our students? Given the inequality in power and experience between students and teachers (even teach­ers from disempowered groups), students are often justifi­ably afraid to challenge our political views even if we beg them to do so. Pick  on somebody your own size!

Making it the main object of teaching to open “students’ minds to left, feminist, anti-racist, and queer ideas” and “stimulate” them (nice euphemism that) “to work for egali­tarian change” has been the fatal mistake of the liberatory pedagogy movement from Freire in the 1960s to today. It puts the cart before the horse when teaching American stu­dents, many of whom are alienated from political discourse, unfamiliar with its vocabulary, and inevitably likely to feel coerced into agreeing with the radical teacher?

What teachers can and should do is introduce students to political issues by representing the spectrum of arguments on the Left, Center, and Right, thus drawing them into political debates. This gives radical views a fair hearing, and presenting them in dialogue with opposing views makes it more likely that students will understand those radical views as well as not feel pressured to agree with them.

You reply that you do exactly what I recommend—not bullying your students, but presenting them with contro­versial political issues and letting them make up their own minds. I believe in many cases that’s true. But if so, such a practice should be called “teaching political debate,” not “liberatory’ education,” “critical pedagogy,” “teaching for social justice,” and other terms that inevitably suggest an effort to convert, if not indoctrinate.

Teaching political debate doesn’t mean teachers have to be neutral and never take a stand, though neutrality is pref­erable to bullying. The more you fairly represent viewpoints strongly opposed to yours in the reading list, the more legitimate it becomes to push your own view. You can do that even more aggressively, though, if you invite colleagues who hold opposing views into your class, a tactic that also gives your students a model of how you can be disagreed with.

There needs to be more clarity, then, about the goals of the “radical teacher”: is it to turn education into a branch of political organizing and proselytizing, or is it to draw students into controversial political debates that they have a stake in as citizens? The second path runs the risk that students will become (or stay) Republicans rather than revolutionaries, but since they may do that anyway, this is a risk that has to be taken. If you believe in your ideas, you should have faith that they’ll win out in a fairly structured classroom debate.

*I have developed these and other arguments more fully in “Teaching Politically Without Political Correctness,” Radical Teacher 58 (2000): 26-30;*

Reaction to Ravitch: The Answer Sheet: Washington Post

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Reaction to Ravitch: A Different View of Common Core

Jan. 21, 2014 at 12:15 p.m. CST

published the text of a speech that education historian and activist Diane Ravitch gave this month about the past, present and future of the Common Core State Standards to the Modern Language Association. (You can read it here.) Here’s a response from Professor Gerald Graff, a former president of the Modern Language Association who teaches English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and who heard Ravitch give her speech.

By Gerald Graff

     “Public education is not broken,” says Diane Ravitch in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  The “diagnosis” of the corporate reformers “is wrong,” Ravitch writes, and their solutions are also wrong.  “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.  But public education as such is not ‘broken,’” and “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised.”

Ravitch’s argument — that the real problem is not public education but its would-be reformers — has become a familiar one for opponents of current attempts to reform the American educational system.  Like most such opponents, Ravitch concedes that the system is far from perfect, but she argues that the causes lie in social conditions outside education, in “concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” as she puts it, and in the false story of a broken system that reformers disseminate in order to justify privatizing education and enriching themselves.  So goes this argument.

    I don’t buy it.

Ravitch is right, I think, that the solutions proposed by today’s reformers — more charters, more standardized tests and fetishized test data, all of it used punitively, more privatization — are not working to improve schools and students.  But nothing in her critique of the reform movement required Ravitch to minimize the failures of public education, which I think we educators should own up to.

I also agree with Ravitch that poverty and segregation account for some of the failures of schools and students, but hardly all.  Few of the college students I teach are poor and many are white, middle class, and relatively privileged, yet their command of basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking falls far short of their potential.  This problem has been documented by a number of studies, including Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” Derek Bok’s  “Our Underachieving Colleges,” the National Study of Student Engagement, and the High School Survey of Student Engagement.

To be sure, about 10-15 percent of our college students do beautifully.  The American educational system has always been good at educating the small minority of students who are already relatively well educated when they start.  But it has done little to help the great majority of students who are essentially confused about how to do academic work, about how to analyze a text and summarize its argument, or about how to make an argument of one’s own.

This is why I like the new Common Core State Standards, which focus on precisely these “college readiness” skills that my students not only struggle with but don’t seem to have been told are important.  Ravitch largely dismisses the Common Core Standards as a byproduct of the false sense of crisis stirred up by corporate reformers, and consequently she doesn’t address the intellectual merits of the Standards, which are far superior to the standards applied under the No Child Left Behind law.  As Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman point out in a recent book, “Pathways to the Common Core,” the Common Core Standards “emphasize much higher comprehension skills than previous standards” and thus represent “an urgently needed wake-up-call” to American education.  E. D. Hirsch has said the same thing.

Here are a few of the skills the Common Core Standards say students should be learning by the eighth grade:

*Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient.

*Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence…

*…acknowledge and distinguish [one’s own] claims from alternate or opposing claims

What is easy to overlook is that standards like these aren’t just another set of hurdles for students to jump over. They actually serve an important teaching function by defining and clarifying mysteries about college level work that colleges themselves leave students to figure out on their own.  It shouldn’t have taken a document from the K-12 sector to disclose secrets of college readiness that we in higher education should have spelled out long ago.  I sometimes think the only places where “college readiness” isn’t being discussed these days are colleges.

    In a backhanded way, Ravitch does acknowledge the intellectual merits of the Common Core Standards when she predicts that their “enhanced rigor” may “cause test scores to plummet by as much as 30 per cent, even in successful districts.”  If this drop occurs, she says, the reformers will take it as further proof of “our nation’s ‘broken’ educational system” and another excuse “to create a burgeoning market for new products and technologies.” True, but what follows from this argument? That we shouldn’t set reasonable proficiency standards because too many students won’t meet them?

    At times Ravitch seems to suggest a much better argument: if we are going to raise standards, then we need to do a much better job of helping all students measure up to them, especially the economically deprived, which would mean using the Common Core Standards productively rather than punitively.  I could not agree more, but in order to help students meet these higher standards schools and colleges will have to improve a lot more than Ravitch thinks necessary.

    Let’s face it. It is the failures of public education that have opened the doors that advocates of privatization have rushed through, and I think it’s reasonable to give them a chance to show what they can do.  But here, I think, Ravitch makes her strongest argument against privatization: that its corporate-backed charter schools are doing no better than traditional public schools.  This lack of success seems more likely to stop privatization than unconvincing claims that public education isn’t all that bad.

    When defenders of public education deny or minimize its failures, we—I count myself one—only vindicate the charge of neo-liberals and conservatives that we are so complacent that we will never clean up our own educational house.  The fact that the current fix isn’t working doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole lot to fix.

Link to the original article HERE