Yesterday, Gerald Graff gave a lecture entitled “Keeping the Disciplines a Secret,” part of the Mellon Tri-College Symposium on the Teaching of Writing. Graff argued that undergraduate education frequently shortchanges students by not emphasizing the study of critical discourse in favor of “making statements in a vacuum.” He spoke to a diverse audience of Swarthmore and Tri-Co students and professors.
Graff, the author of “Beyond the Culture Wars,” and “Clueless in Academe,” is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He began by commenting on what he called the “best student obsession” of admissions offices, when admissions departments seek out those who are “already insiders to the academic club,” and that the US has always given “lip service to democratic education…I don’t think our society has ever really believed it was possible or desirable.”
He then moved on to his main thesis: that undergraduate education keeps students away from “the disciplines,” meaning the accumulated collection of scholarly thought on a discipline of knowledge. Undergraduate education, Graff said, exposes students to the subject matter itself but not to the study of the subject matter. This approach made sense in the beginning of the 20th century, when scholarship was dominated by positivism, he said, but is silly in what he sees as the current robust intellectual environment.
Graff’s example was a thesis for a poetry paper, which operated entirely on close reading of a poem rather than considering the body of scholarly interpretations of the poem. “It implies that the argument is not directed to anyone…such a way of thinking conceives the thesis as pointless,” he said, and emphasized that students’ papers should be conversational responses to other scholars.
His suggestions for improvement were that students should engage more fully in the critical tradition surrounding their subjects rather than just the sources themselves. “Otherwise, your teachers are letting you down,” he said. The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session where professors Jeffrey Murer of Political Science and Tim Burke of History, and several students, questioned Graff’s argument. When they take this approach, “students imitate a certain amorphous, ungrounded meta-method,” Burke said. “We should create a culture of debate,” Graff finished.