Reading the Conflicting Reviews: The Naysayers Gerald Graff overlooked in Clueless in Academe

Reading the Conflicting Reviews: The Naysayers Gerald Graff overlooked in Clueless in Academe

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind
Gerald Graff
New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2004

Geneviève Brassard defends Gerald Graff’s original approaches in Clueless in Academe against his critics - for the problem with Graff’s book does not lie between the covers but rather between the ears of those who fault him excessively for sins of omission and commission.

Marjorie Perloff speaks of the ‘End of Humanities’ as having become a sub-genre of academic writing. See Douglas Barbour’s review of Perloff here.


For an author who advocates for conflict and argument as central to intellectual dialogue, the flurry of critiques of his book Clueless in Academe must be a rare treat. In the category of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ we may now place Gerald Graff, who doesn’t shy away from posting adverse reviews on his website for all to read, but perhaps wonders if he has been at times misread, over-read, or counter-read. For the reviews of Clueless range from, well, ‘clueless,’ to cautiously celebratory, and when read as a group they indeed confirm that no one is a prophet in one’s own land, and that no good academic deed ever goes unpunished.

The problem with Graff’s book does not lie between the covers but rather between the ears of those who fault him excessively for sins of omission and commission. Despite its (minor) flaws and its moments of ‘can’t we all get along here?’ group therapy-speak, Clueless in Academe demands and deserves serious attention from professors, administrators, graduate students, in short anyone who makes a living because students stumble into classrooms hoping for something (most of the times As, but that’s a different matter). Anyone who has struggled with students who believe their ‘opinion’ is ‘good enough’ or those who reject any attempt to expand their thinking abilities with challenging readings and assignments will savor many of Graff’s insights and suggestions.

Perhaps some reviewers have received Clueless with skepticism because Graff dares to appeal directly to common sense and genuinely cares about making academia more congenial for the folks without whom even scholar-stars would be unemployed: students. Why is it so hard to take students and teaching seriously (without sounding pompous) when our livelihood depends on their success in learning, internalizing, and effectively using academic tools we get paid to sharpen for and with them?

One problem, as Graff suggests in his chapter titled “The Application Guessing Game,” lies at the core of the academic enterprise: doctoral programs fail not only to teach their candidates how to work in the real world of state schools, 4/4 teaching loads, and time-consuming committee work, they also fail to make a case for the importance and relevance of higher education. As Graff’s colleague David Damrosch argues in We Scholars: “Graduate training to this day emphasizes ascetic practices of self-discipline and meditative solitude, even though the actual lifestyle of the students’ jet-setting sponsors may be rather different” (19). Savvy graduate students suspect a troubling disconnect between their advisors’ careers and their own future employment, and the savviest among them seek crucial information about the academic job market and pedagogical expertise elsewhere. The recent publication of academic self-help/memoirs such as James Lang’s Life on the Tenure Track and the growing popularity of first-person columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education underscore the need to fill the gap between theory and practice at the doctoral level. A new book by Gregory Colon Semenza, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities, may be the most useful, up-to-date, no-nonsense, “what you wish your advisor had told you but didn’t” guide to graduate school available. They will find in guide books, “self-help” type columns, and in conversations with recently hired colleagues a crucial reminder that most academics serve others before themselves: “student learning” must be assessed, committees must be filled, and even scholarly pursuits such as jet-setting from one conference to the next must yield tangible results such as innovative classroom practices, improved student understanding, and reflected glory on the home institution. Boards of trustees and powerful alumni care very little whether professors queer the Middle-Ages or redress the canon to favor minorities, as long as tuition-paying students learn how to read, write, and think for themselves.

Graff also wants students to engage with academic subjects in a critically informed way, which is why he devotes a large portion of Clueless to the teaching of argument skills. In his chapter “Two cheers for the argument culture,” he notes that “debate is unavoidably central to the life of democratic educational institutions and democratic societies” (85). To that end, Graff suggests that students must be taught to integrate ‘naysayers’ into their argumentative papers in order to formulate their claims more effectively. In a minor conspiracy theory key here, Graff blames professors for mystifying students and withholding from them the tricks of the trade necessary to become fluent in intellectual writing. In Graff’s experience, “instructing students to write a naysayer into a text as part of the assignment and providing templates in doing so enables them right away to make argument moves they have never made before” (Clueless 162). One may quibble with Graff’s methods here; many professors find generic templates limiting or rigid unless students receive a range of “judiciously contextualized” templates (Jurecic 328). However the concept of providing tools to accomplish a task would seem entirely appropriate in other fields, so why not in the teaching of writing as well? Perhaps well-meaning teachers are afraid to cramp their students’ personal style? Or perhaps the aura of inspiration still hovers over the act of writing in certain teachers’ mind, even when the stench of perspiration cannot be ignored.

A related and vital issue Graff touches on is the value and purpose of a liberal arts education. What does it mean to be truly ‘well-rounded’ in a society driven by instant gratification, over-the-top consumerism, attention-deficit-disorder, and job outsourcing? In an age of bottom-line grading (“I pay good money to come here, therefore give me A’s”), corporate takeovers (“who needs philosophers anyhoo?”), and ‘paycheck education’ (“I need to major in something that will pay”), humanities scholar/teachers must work doubly hard to make their disciplines relevant. Grappling with universal problems, discussing lifelong questions, and elaborating sophisticated responses: these activities are not only important in and of themselves for the soul, but the habit of intellectual pursuit easily merges with more down-to-earth occupations in a mutually enriching synergy. Case in point: in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece titled “The Business of the Humanities,” philosophy professor Michael DeWilde suggests that “business types” are eager to learn from “humanities folks” and even carry a “hidden passion” for the humanities (B5). In workshops and lectures, DeWilde uses the skills inherent to the liberal arts to foster dialogue: “Real learning is incremental, affective, and unpredictable” and “Access to characters in literature and theater, ideas from history and philosophy, and images from art and film open conversations that are reflective, innovative, and, most important, continuing” (B5). DeWilde’s success in bridging the gap between two seemingly opposed worldviews and thinking processes suggests that the “real” world (beyond academia) might be receptive to what we have to offer, as long as we know how to “sell” it to them. I found DeWilde’s piece so intriguing that I gave it to my first year students on the first day of our Introduction to Literature class. Many of them were pleasantly surprised by the implied message; the ‘liberal arts’ types were especially thrilled and vindicated in their choice of majors (often made against their parents’ desire to steer them toward a more ‘useful’ field of study).

Graff’s appeal to humanities professors resonates with this academic and many others because his plea is also a warning: isolate yourself too long and too deeply from the outside world to climb the academic star ladder, and that same ladder could be pulled right under you by corporate types who fail to understand what your work can possibly contribute to the world. The best way to reach that outside world and convince its skeptical members that you have something useful to share with them is through their children, your students.

Graff also sees a clear connection between regular folks’ distrust of academics and the convoluted, esoteric, obscure, and jargon-laden ways the majority of intellectuals choose to write. Graff laments the fact that bad academic writing “mask[s] its moments of clarity, bur[ies] its best sound bites, and coyly steer[s] away from confronting the all-important ‘So What?’ and ‘Who Cares?’ questions” (Clueless 136). In a tongue-in-cheek yet serious moment, Graff dares us all “to be reductive” not only in the classroom but also as a way to fight right-wing distortions in mass media outlets: “the pressure on academics to avoid being reductive, to eschew sound bites, to complicate as much as possible and at all times, clashes with the interests of good teaching” (Clueless 137). Graff could have added: not only that, but it also clashes with our long-term interests as a vital, viable, and relevant institution. In sum, it behooves us to forge links with the world beyond the campus gates by sharing our intellectual passion and curiosity with “Johnny can’t read’s parents,” who pay serious dough for their kid’s education and want to see tangible results or at least the possibility of results.

The private liberal-arts college where I’ve recently entered the tenure track actively seeks faculty members who put students first. Whereas the snobbiest of academics would sniff at this statement and deplore such a tragic predicament, I daily send grateful thanks to the fates or guardian angels who have guided me here. Graff’s book reminds me that I did not attend graduate school to lock myself in a small room between piles of books and a computer screen, although I enjoy such moments whenever I can have them. I love how he denounces the teaching/scholarship split for the self-serving pose that it is. At a school where ‘scholarly teaching’ is the buzz word at tenure time, I’m excited to give more thought and energy to teaching than I had the leisure to do in my doctoral program. As Graff pointedly argues, good scholarship involves strong teaching skills since effective communication of ideas forms the basis of both activities.

I’m also pleased that my new institution already embraces many principles Graff advocates. His ‘mixed-message curriculum’ chapter in particular highlights the profound disconnect between disciplines in ‘buffet-style’ course offerings and, more tragically, its deadening effect on students’ intellectual curiosity and joy of learning. Where I work a series of ‘Core Questions’ approached through different disciplinary lenses form the basis of a common curriculum, and writing-intensive courses in the freshman and sophomore years are taught by faculty in Philosophy, Theology, and Communication as well as English. As Graff argues: “since writing is central to all disciplines, all departments have to take responsibility for it, not fob the task off on the English department and walk away” (Clueless 77). The Writing Resource Center is similarly staffed with peers from a variety of majors, and the College of Arts and Sciences holds regular workshops on the teaching of writing to discuss discipline-specific as well as common pedagogical challenges. Moreover, the English department organizes an undergraduate conference mostly run and staffed by students, a concept Graff celebrated in Beyond the Culture Wars (1992). Thoughtful principles that foster student engagement, curiosity, and ability to make connections beyond individual classrooms and textbooks make my work more exciting and my efforts worthwhile.

I hope to convey to my students the real joy I feel when I read a profoundly life-changing book with them, or the pleasure of following my curiosity and sense of adventure in the pursuit of an intriguing research topic. Above all, I hope to demonstrate that there is life, and paycheck, and satisfaction after declaring an English major. In my office innocent, wide-eyed, excited young men and women contemplate the possibilities of 10 potential majors with twinkles in their eyes. They warm the soul and break the heart at the same time. “I’m doing a double-major in music and business.” “Why? In case music doesn’t pan out, I have something to fall back on.” One can’t fault eighteen year olds for thinking practically, but when did college become purely, solely, and heart-breakingly the place to go to guarantee that solid middle-class paycheck? I may not turn them on to Virginia Woolf or Jean Rhys, but if I convince a few of them that making a living and living your life need not be irreconcilable concepts, I will go on gladly learning and gladly teaching, like Chaucer’s Clerk, who admittedly did not have to worry about tenure files but should remain a role model to those of us who care about the life of the mind.

But try being so dewy-eyed around some of Graff’s naysayers. Clueless in Academe has been widely reviewed since it first appeared three years ago, so widely that an exhaustive tour of those reviews would turn this essay into an endless string of quotes. A brief sample will serve to demonstrate that Graff obviously pushes many buttons in uncomfortable places. A title such as “Shakespeare and the Spice Girls” immediately alerts us to Steven Lagerfeld’s reductive and adversarial stance. Contempt for higher education, young college graduates, and academics who dare to care about the life of the mind drips from his pen like blood from the butcher’s table. When Lagerfeld ‘warns’ that “the drift of [Graff’s] logic would carry students and the university as a whole deeper into Never Never Land” (, he betrays his own cluelessness and disregard for the hard work teachers and students accomplish in and outside the college classroom. He claims that recent graduates under his employ suffer under the “effects of four years of mind-fogging higher education” ( but offers of course no remedy to this sorry state of affairs. What would an ideal graduate be like for Lagerfeld? What skills would she bring to her day-to-day dealings with her boss that would make her more effective and less ‘foggy’? Like many critics in demolition mode, Lagerfeld fails to engage with Graff’s ideas and suggestions, and provides none himself.

A more thoughtful yet nevertheless dismissive review of Graff’s work similarly takes Clueless to task for sins of omission rather than commission. For composition theorist Patricia Bizzell, Graff’s prescriptions to cure academia appear bitter-sweet medicine to swallow indeed. Throughout her review, Bizzell returns again and again to her main quarrel with a book she “admire[s] very much”: her claim that composition studies has tilled Graff’s field. However, instead of regretting the neglect of “the extensive body of contemporary work in composition studies on the social construction of knowledge” (Bizzell 322), I wish a spirit of generous collegiality rather than petty turf wars could govern critical readings of our colleagues’ scholarly endeavors. Bizzell could have focused on the wide range of scholars and bodies of research Graff does not neglect such as Robert Scholes, David Damrosh, Howard Gardner, Mike Rose, Joseph Harris, Deborah Meier, Kurt Spellmeyer, and Bizzell’s own Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness (I could add much to the above list, and curious readers are invited to skim the notes at the end of Clueless for full bibliographical citations). Obviously Bizzell is not alone in her tendencies to remind other scholars of the work she and others have done; what I find especially damning is the passive-aggressive undercurrent beneath much reviewing and critiquing in academia. Why take Graff to task for agreeing with the work others may have pioneered, instead of applauding his genuine embrace of insights and practices from other fields?

Another type of summary execution through faint praise can be found in Ivan Kreilcamp’s claim that “Graff is, simply put, too optimistic” (335). Unless I’m mistaken, firstly Clueless in Academe belong much more to the realistic, ‘warts-and-all’, where-we-are-now genre of academic research; and secondly even if Graff is ‘guilty’ of bringing must needed positivism and optimism to a field crowded with apocalyptic tomes predicting the end of higher education as we know it, so what? There are worst crimes than accentuating possibilities and inspiring reforms, especially in a culture so averse to change.

One of the most astute and generous readers of Clueless, Ann Jurecic, presents a compelling case for constructively critiquing some of Graff’s assumptions. Jurecic suggests that the cluelessness premise upon which Graff builds his argument may not be as universally acknowledged as the book claims. She resists the idea that “newly entering college students suffer from cluelessness” (Pedagogy 327) and my experience teaching two sections of first-year students this fall supports her claim. Most of my students may not be familiar with the intricacies of academic discourse and may struggle to formulate a valid interpretive claim about literature, but they are well-versed in subjects, mediums, and “texts” (literary or otherwise) that would draw blank stares from many faculty members. On the first day of class I always ask my students to write down on a note card the last book they read “for fun,” and the responses are often surprising: for every DaVinci Code or Harry Potter I get The Satanic Verses, The Dharma Bums or A Clockwork Orange, all titles I have yet to crack open myself, despite the fancy letters at the end of my name. If a small, insecure part of me feels threatened by such precocious erudition, the mature adult usually finds comfort in the fact that “kids today” do read still, and think, and imagine, despite alarmist reports to the contrary. Jurecic’s generous yet demanding attitude toward students reminds us that the best teaching-learning experiences happen when teachers and pupils meet each other half-way, with curiosity and open minds. And the same could be said of the writing-reviewing relationship as well: unlike most reviewers, Jurecic engages with Graff’s ideas and presents her own suggestions in a spirit of collegiality and collaboration, for the benefit of students rather than tooting her own horn.

I must conclude with a final irony: no argument writer can ever imagine the range and variety of naysayers his or her piece could possibly generate, which is precisely Graff’s blind spot in theory and practice. His book is much more valuable and his arguments more valid than his critics would have us believe, and in that sense the ‘naysayer’ template proves its limitation here. A truly persuasive argument will trump and easily dominate the most negative of naysayers, as Clueless in Academe ultimately proves. At a time when ‘transparency,’ ‘meta-teaching,’ and ‘scholarship of teaching’ have gained currency and legitimacy in many academic circles, Clueless in Academe reminds us that thinking about teaching is crucial because teaching is a most rewarding occupation: not only are professors relatively independent and free of rigid scheduling constraints, but each semester a fresh group of young minds bring to them challenges, questions, and reasons to keep their practices and interests relevant and inspiring. Read this book, disagree with it, embrace some suggestions, reject others, share it with a colleague: I believe its most valuable features will eventually transform teaching practices, one classroom at a time, and truly benefit our students or, for those who believe in “bottom-line higher education”: our valuable customers.

Works Cited

Bizzell, Patricia. “Persuasion and Argument: Coterminous?” Pedagogy 5 (Summer 2005): 317-323.

Damrosch, David. We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge & London: Harvard UP, 1995.

DeWilde, Michael. “The Business of the Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 1, 2005. B5.

Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2004.

Jurecic, Ann. “Getting a Clue: Gerald Graff and the Life of the Mind.” Pedagogy 5 (Summer 2005): 323-330.

Kreilkamp, Ivan. “Getting Real About Failure in the Classroom.” Pedagogy 5 (Summer 2005): 331-337.

Lagerfeld, Steven. “Shakespeare and the Spice Girls.”