Graff & curricular mixed messages in English depts

Mark Bauerlein posted over the weekend about Gerald Graff’s presidential address (some scrolling required) to the MLA.  The argument will be familiar to anyone who’s read Graff’s Clueless in Academe: The default attitude of many professors is a kind of pedagogical libertarianism, whereby we all agree not to look too closely at what goes on in one another’s classrooms.  In part this arises from our differing specializations (esp. if you’re not at a research school, you might well be the only person in your field in your department), and in part it arises from the real difficulties of evaluating teaching.  Here’s Bauerlein summarizing Graff:

 Graff focuses on the end point, that is, how it comes off to students. They get “curricular mixed messages,” he says, “clashing stories . . . from the faculty.” In the episode above, the student received from Graff and the other teacher contrary assignments, and he was confused. One teacher seemed to “undercut” the other, forcing the student into what may have seemed senseless adjustments from morning to afternoon (“relativists at 10 o’clock and universalists after lunch”).

I tend to agree with Graff and Bauerlein that this is a real problem–not because there should be One True Approach to literary/cultural studies, but because conflicts between approaches are too often buried or unacknowledged.

We can probably turn the screw a notch tighter here:  Part of the difficulty is that we often claim to be teaching the same skill, when in fact the methods involved are worlds apart.

For example: It absolutely kills me anytime I hear or read people say things like, “well, no matter what, we all value close reading.”  That’s either untrue, or what is meant by “close reading” is something so general that it can only mean something like “being prepared for class.”  Most of the time this isn’t that big a deal–if you’re sufficiently upfront about how you’re using a term in your assignments, then students will catch on pretty quickly.  (I will say that this is one of the reasons I call one of my regular assignments an “explication paper,” rather than a “response paper.”)  Sometimes, though, it’s more frustrating: I believe at least some graduate students have had their prospectuses held up partly because of differing assumptions about what “close reading” would mean, or about what it means to apply a theoretical model to a literary text.

This isn’t a point about theory/non-theory approaches.    (Remember, although I play a sane person on my blog, I’m secretly a card-carrying [well, button-sporting] Lacanian . . . ! )  I’d say, instead, that it’s simply worth remembering that the fact that “everyone knows” a term or skill doesn’t mean that everyone knows the same thing about it, or deploys it in the same way.  Ask any 5 psychoanalysts about the death drive, say, or about the interpretation of dreams, if you want an example from another field.

In lieu of an ending, a couple of disconnected points:

  • This infra-disciplinary variousness makes assessment . . . let’s say a challenge.  Say, for example, a department wants to assess how its graduates “read closely.”  Good luck with that!
  • This is probably an argument for prolix assignments/prompts.  I don’t think there’s any reason to think that a rising junior or senior, asked for a close reading of a literary text, will know what that means, because it means too many different things.
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2 Responses to Graff & curricular mixed messages in English depts

  1. Horace says:

    Inasmuch as we are designing a new foundations/ gateway course into the major here, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about what we mean by X–close reading chief among them, followed by what counts as evidence, followed by what periodization means, followed by what is an author?

    I do agree though that meta-discussions in the classroom–that what Professor Lord Byron means by close reading may differ from what Professor Marlowe means, both of which are completely different from Professor Fanon–are crucial. And each of those profs should do as much as possible to show their own footwork, so that students can see that footwork as such.

    But this is part of the problem, because we have so thoroughly internalized our own methodologies, that it’s difficult for us not to see them as universal, even when we know on paper that they are not.

  2. Jason says:

    Horace–sorry I missed this!

    You’re absolutely right. And a predictable consequence of the pedagogical libertarianism Graff describes is that, at least initially, these discussions seem fraught. “Are you saying I’ve been doing it wrong?”

    (Of course, the reason for the internet is to tell people they’re doing it wrong!)

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