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Tuesday, April 16

Gapers Block

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Clueless in Academe is UIC prof Gerald Graff's personal answer to an intriguing question: How have academics managed to convince themselves and everyone else that the academy is boring, pedantic, and irrelevant to life today? Graff's answer is less a polemic about the relevance of scholarship than it is the summation of his career as a professor. Clueless in Academe is a deeply personal and elegantly written meditation on the nature of teaching, learning, writing, and communicating that educators and students at all levels can profit from.

At the heart of Graff's book lies the conviction that the to- and fro-ing of academic debate is nothing more than a refined and sharpened form of what happens whenever human beings open their mouths. Whether comparing vegan restaurants or mooting the relative merits of the chick from Alias, Graff argues that people are always already thinking with others by conversing with them. Graff puts this idea of conversation - summarizing what has come before, responding, and then handing off to your interlocutor - at the center of Clueless in Academe. Teaching, says Graff, is not about filling heads with facts or forcing the classics down people's throats. It's about teaching people how to converse, and hence think, effectively. Writing isn't about drifting into the realm of obscure academic jargon, it's about contributing to a conversation between scholars. And communicating isn't about pressing your own views on others, it's about learning to be an effective and decorous members of a discussion.

When you put it this way, Clueless in Academe sounds rather abstract, but in fact one of the greatest joys of the book is how remarkably down to earth it is. Like it's predecessor, Herb Cohen's timeless You Can Negotiate Anything, Clueless is one of those rare volumes that are part personal philosophy, part ethnography, and part self-help book. Graff's prose, for instance, wonderfully exemplifies the style he advocates: each chapter begins with a current debate in the academy, outlines the position of one prominent voice within that debate, and then responds.

And there's lots of practical advice in the book as well - the chapter on how to write graduate school applications is quite simply the best I've ever read. The chapter on his own childhood and transformation into an academic is personal and touching without being self-indulgent or boring.

There's no doubt that under the hood of this volume is a heaping tablespoon of 'Theory', but the heavyweight academic theory that lurks in the shadows of Clueless is like celery in soup: it lends a rich undercurrent of flavor which provides a base for the chicken and noodles without ever overwhelming them. Graff's career, first as founder of the University of Chicago's Masters of Humanities program, and now as Dean of Curriculum of and Instruction at the University of Illinois Chicago, also provides proof that his vision of education can work.

Indeed, his collaboration with fellow UofCers Wayne Booth and Joseph Williams is one of the reasons the UofC continues to enjoy a reputation as a great undergraduate college. Booth and Williams have both written books supporting their view of pedagogy which are already classics (Booth's Craft of Research and William's luminous Style: Towards Clarity and Grace). And while time can only tell how Graff's book will be received, there's no doubt that it at least deserves to get on the ballot. Clueless in Academe asks a timely question, and provides a compelling and answer.

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Andrew / September 17, 2003 11:29 AM

Hey, The Morning News has an interview with Prof. Graff about "Clueless in Academe."

fioricet / August 24, 2004 12:58 AM

tramadol Eli and Bessie went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, Bessie nudged Eli.
"Please be so kindly and close the window. It's cold outside!"
Half asleep, Eli murmured,
"Nu ... so if I'll close the window, will it be warm outside?"


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