Published Winter/Spring 2009
Credo of a Teacher
by Gerald Graff | ns 71-72
My credo as a teacher: do whatever it takes to turn students into compulsively analytic intellectuals like yourself. It's never mattered to me what kind of intellectuals my students become—Left, Right, or Center—as long as I do something to help them become intellectuals I feel I'm a success. And if I do something to help them become really good intellectuals I'm even more of a success.
Of course, if all or most of my students became followers of Ayn Rand or Charles Krauthammer I'd worry, but that hasn't happened yet. I've been on the warpath for some time against "radical pedagogy," "the pedagogy of the oppressed," "teaching for social justice," and other descendants of sixties political pedagogy that expressly aim to turn students into radical Leftists. This strikes me as a terrible idea, both because it doesn't work—more students rebel than become converted—and because even if it does work it's unethical and unprofessional.
Since my writing began to focus entirely on educational issues in the mid 1980s, this is the credo that has also underlain my published work and lecturing as well: the function of schools and universities is to turn the highest possible percentage of students into intellectuals. And measured by this criterion, I'd have to say colleges and universities do about as bad a job as possible, in large part because we not only don't collaborate in our teaching but actually undermine and cancel each other out through what I've called the "mixed message curriculum" and the cult of teaching as a solo practice (which I've recently called "courseocentrism"). Since I don't think we can make any kind of transformative impact on students unless we work together (as workers do in almost every other complex enterprise besides college teaching), I've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get the whole institution to change by getting faculty members to work together to create a curriculum that would make coherent sense of the intellectual world for students and thereby draw a higher percentage of them into it.
I'm still at that project of trying to change the institution—see my MLA Presidential Address last month at the annual convention (entitled "Courseocentrism"), a condensed version of which has appeared in Inside Higher Ed, which may turn out to be my last bullet or last gasp, as the case may be. But several years ago I got tired of the slowness and improbability of trying to change the whole university and hit on a shortcut method of turning students into intellectuals, which is the slightly secret agenda of the two "Critical Controversy" textbooks I've done with James Phelan on Huckleberry Finn and The Tempest, but above all of the most recent one co-written with my wife, Cathy Birkenstein, entitled "They Say/I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. This last book has a secret behavior modification agenda, giving students templates that they have to start to become intellectuals of sorts in order to fill out very well:
In the debates over_________, a controversial issue is whether______________. Whereas some argue that____. Others reply that_____________. My own view is that_________.
This book has been by far my most successful publication (it's now used in over 800 colleges in many different disciplines) and allows me to feel that I'm accomplishing my goal at the grass-roots level while I'm waiting for universities to change in the ways I've urged.
This brings me to the last part of my credo, which is that the distinguishing mark of intellectuals is dialectical debate or what our textbook calls the "They say/I say" game. Our premise is that John Stuart Mill and Kenneth Burke got it right: intelligibility is hooked to controversy, contradiction, dialectic. We never do anything just to do it but only as a counterstatement or response to something, if only a lack or absence. In teaching I believe there's no viable way to organize a course or any kind of intellectual material other than as a debate or controversy; the failure to do this at least partly explains the abysmal state of education around the world. If students are given no controversy to enter, as generally they are not, the only thing they can do is regurgitate information or make smart or true statements in a vacuum—which is what the ACT and all the other tests ask them to do.