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Clueless in Academe

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Clueless in Academe
    Book Description:

    Gerald Graff argues that our schools and colleges make the intellectual life seem more opaque, narrowly specialized, and beyond normal learning capacities than it is or needs to be. Left clueless in the academic world, many students view the life of the mind as a secret society for which only an elite few qualify.In a refreshing departure from standard diatribes against academia, Graff shows how academic unintelligibility is unwittingly reinforced not only by academic jargon and obscure writing, but by the disconnection of the curriculum and the failure to exploit the many connections between academia and popular culture. Finally, Graff offers a wealth of practical suggestions for making the culture of ideas and arguments more accessible to students, showing how students can enter the public debates that permeate their lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13201-4
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: In the Dark All Eggheads Are Gray
    (pp. 1-14)

    THIS BOOK IS AN ATTEMPT by an academic to look at academia from the perspective of those who don’t get it. Its subject is cluelessness, the bafflement, usually accompanied by shame and resentment, felt by students, the general public, and even many academics in the face of the impenetrability of the academic world. It examines some overlooked ways in which schools and colleges themselves reinforce cluelessness and thus perpetuate the misconception that the life of the mind is a secret society for which only an elite few qualify.

    Given the inherent difficulty of academic intellectual work, some degree of cluelessness...


    • 1 The University Is Popular Culture, But It Doesn’t Know It Yet
      (pp. 17-42)

      AN OLD SAYING HAS IT that academic disputes are especially vicious because so little is at stake in them. Behind the sentiment lies the belief that the intellectual culture of academia is arid and self-absorbed, its head in the sand or the clouds, concerned with rarefied stuff that real people don’t give a damn about. And there was more than a grain of truth to this view before World War II, when higher education was the privilege of a tiny social elite and the disciplines were dominated by a narrowly antiquarian and positivistic view of inquiry, which was seen as...

    • 2 The Problem Problem and Other Oddities of Academic Discourse
      (pp. 43-61)

      AS TEACHERS WE OFTEN PROCEED as if the rationale of our most basic academic practices is understood and shared by our students, even though we get plenty of signs that it is not. We take for granted, for example, that reflecting in a self-conscious way about experience— “intellectualizing”—is something our students naturally see the point of and want to learn to do better. If they don’t, after all, why are they in school? At the same time, we cannot help noticing that many students are skeptical about the value of such intellectualizing. When students do poorly, the reasons often...

    • 3 The Mixed-Message Curriculum
      (pp. 62-80)

      IN THE LAST CHAPTER, I looked at some of the features that make the culture of academic argument seem baffling, strange, and alienating to many students. I argued that teachers need to identify and isolate these features, to bring them into the open for classroom discussion and clarification, and to flush out and address student confusions and doubts about them. But student confusions about academic argument (and public argument generally) are rooted not only in the conventions and habits we have examined, but in the disconnected way the curriculum represents academic culture to students. In this chapter, I show how...


    • 4 Two Cheers for the Argument Culture
      (pp. 83-95)

      IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS, I have discussed confusions that can be traced to academia’s ways of fogging over its conversations. Some observers, however, complain that what characterizes the academic scene is not “conversation” so much as smash-mouth combat. I have taken flak myself for arguing that conflict and controversy should be made more central in the curriculum. My critics object that today’s academia, like today’s popular media, is all too rife with conflict of a distinctly ugly and unedifying kind. The critics point to talk-show violence, political attack ads, and other signs of a pervasive “Gotcha!” spirit that aims at...

    • 5 Paralysis by Analysis?
      (pp. 96-112)

      FOR DEBORAH TANNEN, the trouble with contemporary intellectual life is that it is excessively angry and adversarial. For others in our culture, however, the trouble with contemporary intellectual life is that it is intellectual. Contemporary culture, it is said, has become so cerebral and analytic that it alienates us from our bodies, our pleasures, and our true selves. The problem is not too much polemical debate but too much analysis and dissection—not the argument culture but, as it might be called, the analysis culture.

      The argument and analysis cultures are twins, however. Critiques of the two often overlap, as...


    • 6 Unlearning to Write
      (pp. 115-133)

      ANY ACCOUNT OF THE STUPEFYING feeling of cluelessness academia induces in many people needs to address the state of academic writing, where academic habits of communication appear in full dress. For those who are aware that it exists, academic writing—the writing professors publish—tends to mean bad writing—turgid, pretentious, jargon-ridden, and humorless, stuff nobody would write or read who wasn’t trying to get tenure. To be sure, a lot of academic writing (not yours or mine, of course) richly merits these scornful epithets. Many academics themselves will tell you that you compromise your career if you write in...

    • 7 Scholars and Sound Bites: THE MYTH OF ACADEMIC DIFFICULTY
      (pp. 134-154)

      CALL IT WISHFUL THINKING, but I have argued in this book that it is possible to do justice to the complexity of academic subjects while communicating clearly to nonspecialist audiences. I was reminded that this is a minority view, however, by the reaction of students in a recent graduate class. They were incredulous when I claimed that they did not have to write obscurely in order to make a positive impression on professional audiences. One or two firmly insisted that a certain amount of obfuscation is a prerequisite for professional success. I suspect that when students write ponderously and evasively,...

    • 8 Why Johnny Can’t Argue
      (pp. 155-172)

      IN FACT, THIS CHAPTER TITLE HAS IT WRONG. Johnnycanargue competently when he is in a real conversation that requires him to be persuasive. As I have pointed out, children learn to argue as soon as they are old enough to lobby parents or babysitters to let them stay up late or buy them an ice cream cone, a bike, or a skateboard like the one the kid across the street has. But Johnny—and Susie—do often run into problems when it comes to the kind of argumentation that is recognized and rewarded by academic institutions. School argument...

    • 9 Outing Criticism
      (pp. 173-189)

      IN THE LAST CHAPTER I presented evidence that students write more cogently about a text when they respond to another commentator than when they respond directly to the text itself. I argued that when students write poorly (on other subjects as well as literature), the reason is often that they are asked to generate an idea or interpretation in a void rather than to enter a conversation. But given the unfamiliarity of the conversations of the intellectual world, most students need help grasping these conversations and writing them into their texts. If this argument is valid, it follows thatcriticism...

    • 10 The Application Guessing Game
      (pp. 190-208)
      Andrew Hoberek

      NOTHING MORE GLARINGLY ILLUSTRATES the academic world’s formidable ability to induce cluelessness than the university application process. More dramatically than anywhere else, the application process illustrates the failure of the academic club to socialize hopeful entrants into its customs, beliefs, and behaviors. This failure shows up at every link of the academic food chain, from high school students applying to college to college undergraduates applying to graduate school to graduate students applying for academic jobs and even to professors applying for grants.

      This chapter is based on our experience working together from 1995 to 1998 as director and assistant director...


    • 11 Hidden Intellectualism
      (pp. 211-231)

      IN THIS BOOK SO FAR, I have been looking at factors that make academic intellectual culture opaque or alienating to many students: seemingly counterintuitive problems and argumentative practices that are rarely explained; curricular mixed messages that further muddy those practices; phobias about adversarial debate and intellectual analysis; obfuscating habits of academic writing; the tendency to withhold the critical conversations that students are expected to enter. In this chapter, I shift the emphasis by examining some ways in which academic and student cultures are closer to each other than they seem and how teachers can take advantage of this convergence.


    • 12 A Word for Words and a Vote for Quotes
      (pp. 232-245)

      IN A RECENT CANADIAN RADIO SERIES on “The Education Debates,” interviewer David Cayley makes reference to “the great divide” between child-centered and curriculum-centered models of education. He suggests that the work of some current educators “straddles” this divide and thereby makes “a hash” of it.¹ Although Cayley is speaking specifically of Theodore Sizer’s writings and their application in Sizer’s national school network, the Coalition of Essential Schools, I think his comment accurately describes a trend represented by a number of prominent educational reformers, whose work also straddles and makes a hash of the great divide between progressive, studentcentered and traditional,...

    • 13 Wrestling with the Devil
      (pp. 246-260)

      IT IS NOT SURPRISING if students feel ambivalent about talking the talk of the academic world, since this ambivalence is pervasive in the larger society in which academics’ funny way of talking is a common joke. Nor is it surprising if teachers themselves so internalize this ambivalence that they hesitate to ask students to master academic discourse, or they fail to master it themselves. Like other divisive issues in academia, the unresolved debates over academic discourse tend to reach students in the form of curricular mixed messages rather than straightforward discussions of the problem.

      The issue of academic discourse has...

    • 14 Deborah Meier’s Progressive Traditionalism
      (pp. 261-274)

      THE TEACHING APPROACH that I have been outlining in this book straddles the divide between traditional and progressive philosophies of education. If I had to nominate one educator whose work best exemplifies this “progressive traditionalism,” my choice would be Deborah Meier, whose 1993 bookThe Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlemcould be its manifesto. Meier’s work as a writer, teacher, and school administrator provides a rich model of how schooling can be demystified.

      Though Meier is politically on the Left, her educational thinking resists being categorized as Left or Right. On the...

    (pp. 275-278)

    1. Enter a conversation just as you do in real life. Begin your text by directly identifying the prior conversation or debate that you are entering. Whatyouhave to say won’t make sense unless your readers know the conversation in which you are saying it.

    2. Make a claim, the sooner the better, preferably flagged for the reader by a phrase like “My claim here is that. . . .” You don’t actually have to use this exact phrase, but if you couldn’t do so you’re in trouble.

    3. Remind readers of your claim periodically, especially the more you...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 279-298)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 299-309)