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January 04, 2005



Back in the stone ages of the late 1980s, the small college I went to was quite explicit about the importance of argument, fairly well across the board: in philosophy of course, but also in English, in history, in economics, in religion, in political science and in foreign languages (at least once you started dealing with literature). We didn't do much arguing in astronomy, but that's about the only course I can think of where we didn't. And in mathematics, boy howdy did we do arguments. They were called proofs.

When I quit taking math, I noticed my arguments got less sharp in my major, poli sci. I think that's because if you can write reasonably well, you can hide the gaps in your argument in a political paper. In math, if there's a hole in your proof, there's a hole in your proof.

At grad school, which was actually somewhere you might have heard of, the importance of argument was even more explicit. But of course the bar was raised: not only did the argument have to be solid, it had to be about a question worth answering. The real arguments were about which questions were worth answering, and why; that is where things started to get interesting.

But to claim the centrality of argument is hidden is simply bonkers.

Rich Puchalsky

I think that Graff is conflating two different problems. One of them is "why Johnny can't argue" and has to do with either declining secondary education or the increase in the percentage of people who go to college -- one used to be able to assume that anyone who made it into a university understood certain basics about the academic culture of argument, and now one no longer can. The other is peculiar to literary studies, and has to do with its impenetrable jargon and the suspicion that there is nothing behind the jargon because nothing in a literary studies argument can be settled in any case.

I think that I'm basicly agreeing with you, although you've written as usual at enough length so that I'd find it hard to summarize exactly what I'm agreeing with.

So I'll just add some of the usual anecdotes. When I went to grad school in astrophysics (a field I don't practise now) people "taught the conflicts" in the way that Graff describes. For instance, there was an important conflict over whether the value of the Hubble constant was 50 or 100, with tremendous implications for just about everything in the field. And each camp had its adherents, and each camp scorned the faintheart who published a paper with the constant set to 75 for the time being. But no one doubted that there would eventually be observational evidence to firmly settle the issue, and everyone understood what the conflict was about.

Now, someone reading an academic paper on the subject might well have been confused by jargon. But one could always explain what was going on to someone in ordinary language if needed -- I know this because I occasionally had to when I TA'd basic astronomy courses. I don't know whether the same is really true of literary theory. I've tried to understand what's behind the jargon and I can't, nor have I been able to find someone who seems really interested in explaining it. (Although I should admit that I haven't looked that hard -- for instance, I've never taken a course).

And all the sneering doesn't help. Look at the cartoon that Graff includes in his introduction, with the two stereotypes blaming each other for hegemony and the destruction of tradition and so on. The idea of "sneering" is a stock one in anti-intellectual American culture, and the idea that so many literary theory conflicts come down to it helps to identify that subject with broader anti-intellectual stereotypes.

ben wolfson

Isn't the "imperialistic" move with theory and the avoidance of irrelevance of a type with the rise of the study of modern language literature (& the MLA), as opposed to classics, itself?


Doug, I'm not sure whether you are saying that Graff (and I) are bonkers for saying that the centrality of argument in literary studies is not made explicit. Or whether you are just saying that not to make argument central is bonkers.

I guess I followed Graff a little too close for my own taste, on reflection. What he (and I) should have said is that in literary study there is official lip service paid to making 'an argument'. Nothing less would be properly scholarly, of course. But there is radical unclarity about what COUNTS as an argument. The short version of the reason why what counts as an argument is not clarified and is, near as I can figure, presently unclarifiable, is that literary studies culture encourages rather eclectic devotion to 'theory' - a bit from this, a bit from that. And some of it is nominally rationalistic and some of it is nominally irrationalistic, i.e. motivatived by counter-Enlightenment impulses or attitudes. But just mashing together rationalism and irrationalism creates a total mess in which it is quite unclear what could count as a reason for claiming anything. (This is a cartoonish portrait I have just drawn. But I think it is what Graff is talking about, not as clearly as he should. It's what I'm meaning to write about if I pursue the issue in another post.)

The big problem with what I just wrote is that it is perfectly possible to do work in literary studies without having your work encrusted with 'theory' ornamentation. But then, being literary criticism, the form of the argument - i.e. what you are doing when you sensitively appreciate and interpret, etc. - is quite difficult to pin down. So this rather dim argumentative light does not shine through the theory fog. It is also possible to be some sort of ruthless rationalist and theorize in the traditional sense of: offer general reasoned accounts. You won't be expelled from the guild. But you won't be setting the tone for the department either.

All too complicated to be handled in one comment.


Ben, I'm honestly not sure. The question about when lit studies got - or has gotten - 'imperialistic' is something I need a better answer to.

des von bladet
as if it were reasonable to imply that everyone in the engineering department has been addled into activism by too much Foucault.

The engineers 'round here are keeping it Frankfurt Old Skool, for sure, while the Maths department is split between unreconstructed structuralistes (dont moi), late-Wittgensteinians and the inevitable rump of lumpen-Platonists.

They're all about the Foucault in geophysics, though.

Rich Puchalsky

"Imperialism" isn't restricted to just disciplines that are losing status. Look at the book Consilience, by E.O. Wilson, for instance, as an example of the doctrine that physics really explains everything. I think that as knowledge increases and different disciplines start to link, there's always the temptation for one to try to engulf the others. With "theory" I'd guess that it's of a piece with the emergence of social sciences like anthropology that started to force more knowledge of the extent of cultural variation into academic thought.

Amardeep Singh

I think Graff isn't excluding (or ignorant of) Philosophy so much as assuming what you're describing -- that Philosophers are somewhat immune to the kind of confusion about what constitutes rationality and "argument" that is so pervasive now in other fields in the humanities. But isn't it true that Philosophy is so often left out of the Culture Wars debates because the assumption is made (sometimes accurately) that academic Philosophers are always in some sense classicists?

What I find to be most interesting in the preface and first chapter of this book is actually not the stuff about teaching the value of "argument" (i.e., teaching students to be interested in our arguments) but the stuff about specialization. I think he still might be wrong on some points there. One point that definitely seems arguable is Graff's claim that America has become less anti-intellectual since the 1950s, or that academia is not in fact more paralyzed by specialization than ever. Techoncrats are now widely respected, but non-utilitarian thinking is still widely ignored or even scorned.

There's more to that, but I'm not sure I can make the point briefly. I'm working on a longer response on this for my blog for Wednesday...

Thanks for initiating (or rekindling) this debate.


I'm on the literary end of the academic racket and I think you maybe even understate the problem, John. The imperialist/isolationist dynamic is a great way of framing the institutional issue, and I think you're quite right to suspect that there's a real, but deeply repressed anxiety about turf at issue. But I think you're also right to believe that the roots of the matter extend much further back than 1965 and in fact may be inextricable from the very effort to define literature as a particular field of academic study. The inevitable consequence of that definition was a need to figure out just what is distinctive about literature, and two basic answers (usually seen as inextricable) have long been prevalent: that literature is distinctive for its emphasis on form (or rhetoric or, more abstractly, language per se, or, the same thing, the materiality of the signifier) and that it represents a superior form of knowledge alternative to rationality. The whole history of modern literary criticism, in short, is profoundly romantic, and the post-'65 literary academy merely takes these tendencies to frequently silly extremes. Predecessors could be quite silly about these things too, with differences in tone and emphasis but oftentimes strikingly similar assumptions about the way an intimate familiarity with the special powers of literature gave one a superior vantage on the merely rational pursuits of the rest of the university and on a hopelessly lost society at large.

Hence, I think, the waffling between isolation and imperialism. Sometimes us literary types want to maintain cultic isolation to preserve ourselves from the rude uninitiated. Sometimes we want to bring the light to the world. Hence too what seems like Graff's incoherence. It's not just that literary academics have lost the sense of what counts as an argument in their discipline. I don't think they ever had one. To the extent it exists, it's a graft that hasn't taken very well.

Obviously, I think this is all pretty unfortunate. But I say this knowing that every year my discipline produces works of genuine scholarly rigor and insight, most of which aren't recognized outside the field (and oftentimes within it) because of the loud crashing of ignorant armies about.


I think there's this basic cultural attitude that's endemic among American adolescents (that you're underestimating based on your experience in philosophy departments): the one thing that any student knows, the way they know the existence of gravity, is that [They] Have A Right To [Their] Fucking Opinion, and that any attempt to engage them in an argument is a form of oppression because you're Telling Them How To Think. They themselves don't need to know how to construct an argument because "It's Just My Fucking Opinion and It's Just as Good As Yours" is the ultimate, unanswerable response -- and it's no job of theirs to have a reason for that opinion.

Push too hard and you'll get a grudging, passive-aggressive "I suppose," accompanied by a slow silent burn at the affront to their dignity, or an outraged "Why do you always have to be right?" Because if you persist in offering arguments to someone who can't come up with one, then they Lost ... and if there's one thing you can't do in America, it's Lose.

I know at least one college graduate who still thinks like this -- who thinks, for gods sake, there's something offensive about newspapers endorsing political candidates ("I should be able to make up my own mind without them telling me What! To! Do!"). There are plenty of college graduates who think like this about every discipline except their own -- see the comments on this morning's thread on Pharyngula, e.g.

Those people sort of self-select out of philosophy very early on (tho there were a few in my first-year classes, as I recall); they're pretty much everywhere else.

Timothy Burke

I don't see why you think philosophy is excluded from Graff's analysis, on two fronts. The first is simple: hasn't Rorty's critique of academic philosophy rested on some very similar foundations? Now this may be exactly why Rorty is the philosopher that non-philosophers read and philosophers ignore, but I think this suggests that you can only say philosophy is outside of Graff's analysis by privileging the definition of academic philosophy that is best loved by those academic philosophers who see the discipline as coherent and bounded and perfectly systematic on its own terms.

The larger problem here that I think enters into many of these comments is that Graff's analysis in this chapter and throughout the book uncomfortably and sometimes confusedly moves between a critique of pedagogical presentations of academic discipliines and the interior landscape of scholarship itself. On the latter point, I think you can often suggest legitimately that he's either wrong or at least exaggerated in his claims.

But on the pedagogical point, I think he's absolutely dead-on, that the entrepreneurial architecture of the courses offered in the humanities and social sciences (including in many philosophy departments/majors) leaves students almost entirely on their own in terms of understanding the relationships between subjects, disciplines and theories. I think the example he gives of a student who goes from one class where a professor says something absolutely categorical about the ontological nature of the subjects at hand to another class where something equally categorical is said, without any institutional sense that these two courses exist in antagonistic or contradictory relation to one another, is absolutely valid. I think in most American universities, professors know very little about what is said in the classroom next door: classrooms and pedagogy are oddly private, individualized affairs.

Yes, I'm sure that there are crucial local exceptions, both in particular institutions and in particular disciplines. Our physics department here, for example, is extremely tight-knit and exceptionally collaborative in curricular development. But even such local exceptions don't contradict Graff's overall point--the relationship between what the physics department here teaches and what I teach is left entirely to a student who might have a class with them and a class with me. We do nothing systematically to cover, explain or explore the connections ourselves unless we're individually motivated to do so. We talk a confident line about how this is the nature of the liberal arts, about how such exploration fosters critical thinking, but like Graff I find myself increasingly skeptical that this functions as an alibi for many academics to avoid having to take a liberal arts approach within their own practice, to acquire literacies with what is done in other disciplines and other areas, or even within their own discipliine. There are nine history professors here, and there are many ways in which we are similar and many ways in which we are very dissimilar in our pedgagogical presentations of what history is, how it's done and why it matters. We have some vague consciousness of that ourselves, and probably all remark on it in our teaching, but I couldn't really say how much, how often or in what ways save for myself.

My colleague Mark Kuperberg teaches a class that I think is a terrific model but is rare even at an institution like this one that is fairly self-conscious about curricular issues and the nature of the liberal arts. It's called "How Economics Sees the World", and its explicit purpose is to demonstrate to students the disciplinary difference between how economics engages several key topics like education and health care that are "shared concerns" that appear prominently in other disciplines (such as political science, sociology, education, biology, engineering). He's trying to both teach how economics has a particular disciplinary way of seeing and to convene possible debates or discussions that students can carry with them into their other studies, that help explain or frame the interrelationships that students are otherwise left to puzzle out on their own. I think this point even applies to the sciences, which may offer extremely coherent views of their own terrain and the interconnections between subjects, but which don't think much (or think badly) in pedagogical terms about what happens when a student carries the sciences elsewhere.

The pedagogical point that Graff makes carries over to "the argument game" as well, I think. Philosophy may be unusually coherent about what argument is and why it matters, fair enough. But as an overall point about pedagogy I think it's a fair one. We vest the teaching of "argument" inside of various other things, writing most predominantly, without making it clear in many cases what the point of the whole enterprise is, or why "argument" functions the way that it does. This tends to make good writing almost a kind of fetish object: much desired, little explained. Students who've come from particular educational backgrounds where argument or writing are already privileged don't need the explanation, though even they'd benefit from it, I think. They just go about their business. But students who come from educational institutions where the purpose of writing is declarative or informational, basically to prove you did the homework, find the functioning of "argument" in the humanities to be really baffling. I see it all the time even here with a highly selective, talented student body, and one thing I consistently here from students is that some faculty are extremely non-transparent in the ways they explain what argument is and more importantly why it's good or valued. If they're non-transparent here, where pedagogy is if anything discussed too much and valued intensely by the institution, then I suspect the situation is much worse elsewhere.

So when Graff is talking about how we teach, I think he's really on to something. When he's talking about the interior of scholarly practice, perhaps much less so.

Lawrence White

John Guillory in Cultural Capital argues that the rise of theory compensates for the falling off of interest in literary texts, so that would be a strong support for John's point.

Keep in mind that high theory itself is already a dead letter. As a commenter noted on the related Crooked Timber thread, there are no jobs. Cultural criticism, on the other hand, is going great guns. Which means Foucault is still a recognized figure, somewhat, but Derrida is on his way out, & no one, I mean no one, reads deMan.

I went into my PhD program in 94 wanting to do American Literary Studies and found out that I had to do American Studies. Now I'm told everyone is doing Transnational Studies. If you thought deconstructive literary criticism was philosophically dodgy, you don't want to look at this stuff.


That was me that LW just refered to (CT - no jobs).

OK - but what's this about transnational studies? If you're talking about some sort of theorization of the transnational, there's certainly room for philododge. But if you're simply talking about reading books from elsewhere, I can't really see what the issue is... And how it lines up with alleged deconstructive excesses...

I think this blur - between canon expansion and theory - happens all the time when the anti-theory avengers set to work. And it really is the window through things seem to seem politically suspect on the side of the anti-MLA (or whatever) folks... A la "We're not fond of Derrida, or of reading lit by brown people..."

Two separate problems, methinks. This is why the "post-colonial" job title has survived the great rationalization of the lit academy...

David Salmanson

To a certain extent I agree with Tim, and oddly, the recent AHR piece on Teaching History is relevant here in that Historians, when we teach, rarely articulate what it is we actually do when we look at a primary or secondary source so that it often looks like we are just making this shit up to someone who doesn't know how we do it.

The next piece of this though, is that currently my 10th grade can't or won't understand what a thesis is and how it connects to a controlling idea of a paragraph and how either of those connect to evidence. And I'm running out of ways to explain it to them.

Finally, as to the Oakland problem of theory (there is no there, there) well, usually there is something there. Keep an eye out for how historians adopt and use lit crit theory. To the extent that this stuff has a there, historians will find ways to use it to write history (we are always looking for new interpretive tools but not necessarily interpretive frameworks.)

Lawrence White

Transnational theory is a high imperialism: the cultural is political, therefore discussion of culture is discussion of politics. Hayden White, by the way, called this (world = text, therefore literary criticism = theory of everything) back in 1976 in his essay "The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory."

Canon expansion is cool, though there already was a discipline bringing in books from elsewhere, comparative literature. Which is the one place I think that high theory still has some traction. But as Guillory explains, the vein of new books dries up quickly. There are a small number of books aesthetically readable. In other words, only so many books are good. As John said, theory (& its successor, cultural criticism) has the professional advantage of opening up topics. If your running a diploma mill, you've got to have lots of dissertation topics. If you read for culture, & the book becomes a description of a socio-political situation, any book will do. So not only do you get an expansion of interpretative themes, you also get an expansion of discussible texts. Students in my program would be tickled pink when they found some moldering 19th novel in the library that hadn't been checked out in 50 years. In almost every case, there was good reason for the neglect.


Well, there's nothing wrong with opening up topics per se, Lawrence. What's galling are the many occasions when less light than verbiage seems to be generated. I'd be the first person to agree that a lot of recent academic literary scholarship has been unproductive, but I think you're too quick to dismiss cultural criticism. After all, that's often what many of the great literary critics were pretty much doing and in my experience it's often what people are really interested in. They want to know about the meeting of artistry and history, when it appears in great works and in not so great. For all its failings I think this is one of the true contributions of the literary scholarship of recent decades. It's now easier to appreciate the artistry of a stylistically and generically wide range of texts than it once was. And it's now clear that there are serious intellectual questions that can be addressed by scholars who are able to address literary questions across a wide range of phenomenon, where they are genuinely significant. Maybe there's not a ton of great work of this sort being done, but there's a lot of very high quality stuff, and I'd be glad to give examples.


btw, I've been out of college for 20 years, and I still remember the day (someday late in my sophomore year) when the bolt of lightning struck and I realized that papers were supposed to make arguments. Suddenly, college got a lot easier. My first reaction was to think: why didn't someone explain this.

Lawrence White

In my anger I do try to remember that much of the criticism I cherish has a wider vision than the merely aesthetic. But the stuff that gets me crazy doesn't even consider literature. It isn't expanding the literary, it's throwing it over.


Very good discussion going on here, keep it up. I'm reading avidly but can't write avidly at the moment. An off-the-cuff response to Tim, who writes:

I don't see why you think philosophy is excluded from Graff's analysis, on two fronts. The first is simple: hasn't Rorty's critique of academic philosophy rested on some very similar foundations? Now this may be exactly why Rorty is the philosopher that non-philosophers read and philosophers ignore, but I think this suggests that you can only say philosophy is outside of Graff's analysis by privileging the definition of academic philosophy that is best loved by those academic philosophers who see the discipline as coherent and bounded and perfectly systematic on its own terms.

Let me just say that at one point (can't find it now) Graff just out and says it. 'You know, it may be that I'm really mostly talking about English departments'. It comes about half way through the book. So I think what I am saying about the scope of the man's project is not very controversial, nor did I mean it as a gotcha.

It may make this clearer if I add that I wasn't intending to advance any normative claim about how philosophy ought to be. So I can't have privileged any definition. I was giving my local knowledge-based, assessment of how things is, not ought. Philosophy departments are not remotely what Rorty would like them to be, if you want to put it that way. If they were the way Rorty wants them to be, they would probably have to deal with all the problems Graff talks about (maybe there would be compensating benefits as well, of course.) But they aren't, so they don't. I should also add that I don't think that the fact that Graff is writing about a much smaller domain than his title suggests is a dire criticism, just a data point worthy of note. (I was really just using it as a way to springboard into the whole imperialism/isolationism thing, which I think is important.)

My point can actually be a springboard into the rest of Tim's point, which I basically agree with. Tim is talking about curricular disorder and anarchy. I quite agree with his claim that there ought to be more order. (I'm a University of Chicago man. The core curriculum is the way to go.) Philosophy departments are marginally less disordered this way than other departments, but we have the anarchy problem, too. Students can sure wander through things in the wrong order and end up with transcripts that make no intellectual sense. The thing to see (and I do see that Tim sees it) is that this problem is substantially (but not totally) distinct from the methodological/theory anarchy point, which was more what I was focusing on. Philosophy is a good example because we have a high degree of basic consensus about how the game gets played. But we are a bit anarchic about teaching the game.

I more or less just long-windedly unpacked what I take Tim to be getting at when he says:

the book uncomfortably and sometimes confusedly moves between a critique of pedagogical presentations of academic disciplines and the interior landscape of scholarship itself.

Putting it one final way, Tim is hinting to me: doesn't the fact that you have the pedagogical problems, if not the interior landscape problems, make what Graff says apply to philosophy departments? I say: no. The fact that he is moving confusedly between A and B is bad enough in lit studies (and maybe the rest of the humanities) where A and B are at least both existent, although distinct. In philosophy, we've really only got A, so the degree of confusion generated by hallucinating the presence of B, then conflating it with A, becomes too great. Graff could not help us get our house in order. But I don't think he is trying to talk about philosophy departments anyway, so this doesn't bother me.

And of course philosophy has got 'interior landscaping' problems of its own. But they aren't the same ones as literary studies, not by a long shot.

Rich Puchalsky

The main point that was reinforced for me by Amardeep Singh's post is again that Graff is running into trouble by conflating the problem of poor preparation of incoming university students with that of how literary studies should relate to the rest of the educated universe.

I don't think that you can derive anything useful from the fact that freshman students are clueless. That doesn't necessarily mean that you, or your field, is doing anything wrong, except perhaps by underestimating how much remedial preparation is needed. Another anecdote: while TA'ing introductory astronomy, I ran into a student who breathlessly congratulated me on my explanation of what the Sun and Moon were. I asked her what she had thought they were. She replied that she had thought they were just "lights in the sky". This was a student from a firmly middle-class background, and she was a sort of intellectual survival from precivilizational times.


Rich, that is a very bizarre story.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, it was at a state university which required that every student take one science course, and introductory astronomy was reputed to be the easiest science course, so we got everybody. On another occasion, I was doing a special study session that was made available to students before the first major test so that they could ask questions. Only six people showed up. I was trying to answer a question about scientific notation when it dawned on me that the reason for the guy's confusion was that he didn't know how to subtract a negative number. I was momentarily boggled; I had completely forgotten how I was taught basic arithmetic. Another bored student looked up from his newspaper and barked "Try the numbers line!" I gratefully thanked him for his suggestion and turned to the blackboard, where I showed the questioner (a fashion major, I later determined) how subtracting a negative number meant that you ended up adding it.

I do have a point in retailling these anecdotes. Since astrophysics is a hard science, people who teach it at the college level don't feel that they have anything to prove when these incidents occur. They don't send you on long anguished evaluations of what your field may be doing wrong that is causing so many to be clueless, and whether it's all because maybe your field is useless or something. You just shrug and put it down to the failure of secondary education.

Gerald Graff

I don't think John you've addressed Tim's point, that "Philsophy may be unusually coherent about what argument is about and why it matters," but this fact is irrelevant to the main concern of my book. This is that many students (including philosophy majors, I wager) (a) never even discover that doing academic work has something to do with argument (I love McGruff's post on this), or (b) are exposed to such different forms of argument in so many different guises and contexts (mixed in with anti-argument) and all with so little correlation by the institution that they come away with a very confused and inarticulate grasp of argument and everything else besides. (But all this is said much better and more carefully in my book, of course.)

The impression I get from this exchange, though, is that John and some of you others don't see the problem of cluelessness that I see or you don't see it as a problem, or at any rate a problem that somebody could do something about. Rich Puchalsky expresses this view most explicitly when he says it's all a "problem of poor preparation of incoming students." In other words, if there is cluelessness it's not our fault, so forget it.

This, I find, is the attitude of a great many college faculty, who must indeed be pretty bewildered by my book. But it was this attitude that I meant to challenge by writing the book.

One last point for John: in my experience the University of Chicago "core curriculum" is neither a core nor a curriculum. It's the same figure-it-out-for-yourself mixed-message business found everywhere else, but promoted by the U of C as if it were really coherent. See the U of C student I quote who says, "In humanities I bullshit. In social science I regurgitate."

Thank you all, though, for giving my book a run for its money, and you John especially for instigating this discussion!

Jerry Graff


The fact that college freshman often can't write an essay or read a poem doesn't send me into anguished evaluations either. I assume those are worthwhile abilities and that, as a professor of English, it's my job to introduce a familiarity with them where they don't exist. Of course, it's very nice when you don't have to worry about teaching the rudiments--which is something that, I think for a range of reasons, even people like myself who are lucky to be in really soft gigs, encounter more than they maybe they once did.

Graff's take on all this seems to me (like a lot of his stuff), clever in some ways but often provincial. I think newgrange has a better sense of what's going on, and to rephrase earlier comments, I think there's a pretty direct reason that literary studies have been allergic to argument. It's that damned intentional fallacy. Boy, that was a bad idea--and a foundational one for postwar literary study in the academy. Once a writer's intention seemed unimportant to the meaning of a text, and a reader's reaction became everything, it was downhill from there. Alas, the theory works all too well for democratic education and a consumer economy.

To put this differently, John may be right that literary types don't really have a lot to argue about in the ways that philosophers do, but if we can't argue about what a text means then really we don't have anything to discuss at all and only something to express or experience.

I think this point is actually consistent with Lawrence's complaint about overthrowing literature. Ian Hunter once cleverly pointed out that the practitioners of the then faddish cultural studies looked a lot like the classic avant-gardes (surrealism, futurism, etc.) in wanting to destroy the museum so that art could be everywhere. Transferring the significant creative role from the writer to the audience accomplished a similar end. It let literature be wherever we looked.


Hey, I've been busy futzing around with my MT Templates and didn't even notice that Gerald Graff himself showed up to join the discussion. Welcome, Gerald. This makes me extra pleased that I made all that noise above about being civil. Who knew that politeness could actually pay off in terms of a higher-toned debate? (I remember months ago I wrote a really toxically snarky attack on John McCumber, and then he showed in comments and I had to feel rather embarrassed. It's almost like I'm growing up or something. Who knew that blogging could teach manners?)

Anyway, now I very much want to continue the discussion and will try to do so, but I'm busy, busy today. Let me ask the author himself a couple questions, because the answers will effect how I frame my follow-up. (But it isn't any sort of trap, just a question about how he sees things, so I can discuss more efficiently.)

Gerald, you say I miss Tim's point and I see what you mean: you and he are concerned about curricular reform in response to a certain sort of 'cluelessness', which is a reasonable enough term for it. Roughly: students really don't have any idea how they are supposed to construct a liberal education for themselves, so leaving it to them to construct their own 'liberal education' at the entrepreneurial buffet bar of course offerings is rather negligent. (That's putting it too flatly, but have I got the gist?) I quite agree. Let me just grant you all that, for the purposes of the argument - but also because I really do agree.

I was really talking about something else, which is related and which you certainly are also concerned with in your book: the self-conception of literary studies. Or maybe I should say: the self-conception of all those portions of the humanities that are sort of uncomfortably in the post-Theory dumps. (Yes, I'm putting it crudely.) This subject has been beat to death, of course, but mostly in a polemical and unprofitable way. (I have contributed more than my share of polemics.) I would be curious to get your frank opinion, Gerald, about how it relates to the 'cluelessness' issue, as you frame it.

Let me narrow the focus a bit more. One of the only clear legacies of Theory in literary studies (and etc.) is a profound methodological eclecticism - a bit of this, bit of that; travelling theory; touch of J.L Austin, dab of Zizek. People say they are 'pragmatic' about theory. They 'take what they can use'. Crafty readers, Scholes calls them. But this is really quite unclear, especially when there are promiscuous borrowings from (putting it crudely once again) the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment. I do not mean to belittle as frivolous the urge to make this synthesis. As old Fred Schlegel said: 'to have a system and not to have one are equally deadly to the spirit. It is necessary to combine the two.' There you have 'pragmatic' post-theory methodological eclecticism in a nutshell. The problem with it, mostly, is that it's not clear that it's better than a shell game. It isn't clear that it adds up to more than incompatible gestures. This is a very real and serious problem for literary studies as a discipline. Down to their bones, its inhabitants are unsure whether they are children of the Enlightenment or children of the counter-Enlightenment. Or, if they are both, how that can be managed. So they don't know, in the most basic sense, what COUNTS as an argument. (This is an exaggeration. It's not as though every lit studies paper gets dragged through this metaphysical mud.) And, of course, if the scholars themselves are profoundly uncertain about what they are willing to let count as an argument, teaching argument becomes a deeply problematic affair. In philosophy, we've got the Enlightenment vs. the counter-Enlightenment, too. It sometimes gets thumbnailed as analytic vs. continental, which isn't really satisfactory. But I think there is much more settled agreement about how to talk about it. (Of course settled agreement may be quite wrong. I'm not taking this as proof of superiority. Conversely, the fact that lit studies people are in crisis about how to be a servant to two masters - the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment - doesn't show that they are unserious idiots.)

So what do you think? I'm looking for frankness here, and in exchange I'm promising to forego snarky 'gotchas' and uncharitable point scoring.


Rereading my post in light of Graff's comment that I missed his point, I can see that I do sort of fail to make clear that he is concerned to a considerable degree about curricular matters - that he defines 'cluelessness' differently than you might assume, reading my post. And, yes, my post is a bit snarky. So I shouldn't congratulate myself too elaborately for my politeness. But I'm trying, I really trying.

Gerald Graff


Yes, you've definitely got the gist when you summarize me as worrying that leaving students, at least too many students, "to construct their own 'liberal education' at the entrepreneurial buffet bar of course offerings is rather negligent." That's certainly a big part of it for me.

You ask what I think about the self-conception of literary studies and the humanities. At first I was going to defend myself again for not saying much about this topic in the book, but your comments are making me see that I should have said more about it. What happened is I wanted to avoid getting caught up again in the culture war over the identity of the humanities by arguing, as I do in the Introduction to CLUELESS, that it seems a bit silly to get so embroiled in battles over which books to study and how to study them when a huge percentage of the student body needs the CLIFFS NOTES to study ANY book, whether it's canonical or trendy.

That is, I was trying to displace the canon-debates and the debates over methods into pedagogy by asking what sense such conflicts make--or fail to make--to students and others who are outside the culture of intellectual debate about anything (see my cartoon). If Leavis and Cleanth Brooks are just as nebulous to 3/4 of my students as Foucault (as I found they were last semester), then shouldn't we be more concerned (at least in our role as teachers) with how to bring students into intellectual discussion AS SUCH than with which intellectuals they should side with in that discussion?

But your comments make me see that the confusion we leave unaddressed over whether the humanities have anything to do with argument or not contributes significantly to keeping students and others clueless about us, and therefore it deserved a lot more attention than I gave it. I do agree with you that there's "much more settled agreement" about argument and how to talk about it in philosophy than in literary studies, and that this makes philosophy more legible than literary studies. And I very much like your point that the humanities are unsure and have been for some time over whether they are children of the Enlightenment or the anti-Enlightenment, and that a big effect of this uncertainty is disagreement and confusion over what counts as an argument or whether argument has a place in the humanities at all. I was thinking of this issue in my occasional comments on the anti-intellectualism of much that passes for "arts education," and more directly in my chapters "Paralyis by Analysis," and "Two Cheers for the Argument Culture," where I try to show how humanistic anti-intellectualism, despite itself, can't help getting caught up in the argument culture it despises. But I see now that I don't confront the questions you raise as directly as I should have.

Jerry Graff

Rich Puchalsky

Since Gerald Graff cites me as the one saying most explicitly here that cluelessness is a problem of poor preparation, and then goes on in next paragraph with "This, I find, is the attitude of a great many college faculty,[...]", I should make it clear that I'm not college faculty and don't even have a Ph.D.

I can only speak from my experience in astrophysics, which may not be relevant here. But I still think that saying that this is a curricular problem -- students aren't getting a well-balanced meal from the buffet bar of course offerings -- doesn't make as much sense to me as saying that this is a remedial preparation problem. If incoming students don't understand the academic culture of argument, then make them take an introductory course that tells them that there is an academic culture of argument. That's remedial preparation, not wide-scale curricular redesign. They really should have learned this in high school, if their high school was supposed to prepare them to go on to college. And if they can't get the basic idea in a single college course, maybe they shouldn't be thinking of going on to major in the humanities.

I know that in the introductory astronomy courses which I TA'd, they no longer assumed any pre-existing knowledge. We'd literally teach back to the Copernican level of the Earth going around the Sun and all that, not as science history, but as you-may-not-have-known-this current fact.

What I find much more troublesome about literary studies is that college graduates can't understand it, not that college freshman can't understand it. If you want to understand basic astrophysics and have no background in it, you pick up "A Brief History of Time" or some other such work, and many people do. There are lots of popularizers who can translate jargon. For literary studies, I see tremendous potential interest among the educated but lay community, most of whom regularly read more or less sophisticated fiction, and no popularization.

W. Kiernan

From Chapter one: American high schools still don’t see it as their mission to prepare all their students for college, even though everybody now agrees that college is a virtual prerequisite for success and a decent life.

So thirty-six percent of young Americans must resign themselves to never enjoying "success and a decent life." Not that readers here care, because after all, it's their own fault; any American high school graduate who wants to go to college can afford to do so.


The Hawking's a bad example, Rich, because it's one of the most famously bought-but-unread books ever published.

Gerald Graff

To Rich: Please check the book, where I do spend most of my time on what you call "remedial" problems.

To W. Kiernan: Yes, that was a bit over the top for me to call college a "prerequisite. . .for a decent life"!

To John: On literary studies as inarguable. One interesting implication of the New Critics' theory that a poem was "autonomous," "should not mean but be," etc. was that no poem or literary work could ARGUE with any other poem or literary work. So to treat Moby-Dick as an attempt to refute Emerson transcendentalism (among many other things) was to misuse literature. I do wish I'd mentioned this in CLUELESS!

Jerry Graff

Timothy Burke

See, this is the point at which I think the interior landscape of scholarly practice connects to and even explains the pedagogical incoherence that Graff describes very well: precisely at the point that John sets out. The impulse to methodological eclecticism, to a little of this, a little of that, is indicative of a problem that lies much deeper in the general practice, both scholarly and pedagogical, of the humanities.

The way I've flippantly characterized it at times is that too many professors in the humanities are rather like priests who've lost their faith. Essentially they don't really believe in the mission of the humanities as it appears in admissions catalogues, well-meaning speeches by presidents of the ACLS, and unfashionable old-style literary critics. But neither do most of them any longer believe in any kind of consistent way in a Gramscian conception of the humanities as an instrument in struggles over hegemony and "common sense". The artifacts of such a theoretical position survive everywhere as postures and half-enacted assumptions, but rarely with any rigor or confidence. Foucauldian power/knowledge conceptions turned in on the academic humanities leave anyone who takes them too seriously in the postion of being a self-conscious fraud, and I've heard a few unusually frank people more or less cop to that. (e.g., "Even though peer review and tenure and scholarship are just about the self-reproduction of institutions which have no legitimate purpose save the perpetuation of their own distinctive forms of power/knowledge, I participate in them whole-heartedly because I must). So methodological eclecticism or "pragmatism about theory" is to some extent a visible sign of a deep confusion among many in the humanities about the purpose of being academics in the humanities.

This is one of the things that makes clarifying the curriculum so difficult, I think--and Graff seems to me to be very insightful in the way that he lays a lot of this set of problems out. I do think academics can be very clear about what "argument" is and why they value it, and so if they can't communicate that to their students, that may be a more ordinary and manageable problem. But maybe not--maybe here too a certain kind of underyling disorder in the self-identity of academics contributes to their inability to communicate their purposes to their students in a way that reflects a confident awareness of the general terrain of the humanities.

There's a much more practical problem here as well, and that's tenure. Not the typically discussed use of tenure to suppress independent thought and passion among the yet-to-be-tenured, but the more subtle problem that provides for a lot of the discomfort of middle-aged academics. Namely, once you have tenure, odds are, you're going to be wherever you are for most of your life, and so are most of the people who are your colleagues. If you set out to very clearly place your courses and your working epistemology and so on in perspective, if you try to bring order to your own place in the curriculum and maybe urge others to do the same, you're eventually going to have to either be in the position of advocating some kind of managerial control over your colleagues and yourself (lots of work if faculty have to do it) or at the least you're going to find yourself investigating and characterizing what your colleagues study and teach. This is a pretty quick route in either case to conflict with colleagues, to hurt feelings and bruised egos. When you're going to be spending 30 years with people, it suddenly looks like it might be much wiser to just quietly tend to your own gardens.


Thanks, Tim. That was delightful clear. I'm working on a follow-up, still. But this comment discussion should continue.


Being lucky enough to have it hasn't changed my feeling about the terrible unintended consequences of tenure--i.e., designed to produce independence and excellence, but frequently creating the opposite. As the curmudgeon's expression about democracy goes, it's the worst system except all others.

So, I think Tim's exactly right about the temptation to tend one's own garden. I know that on more than one occasion I've avoided battling with colleagues because the stakes seem small and the costs prohibitive.

But still, it's not obvious to me how any kind of traditional sense of the mission of the humanities would be an alternative to this situation. Let's say, I think the mission is to teach the best that's been thought and said. That still means disputes about what's on the list, what counts as criteria, etc. And, to reduce matters to extremes, the ways to resolve this problem are either through institutional imposition or through eclecticism. That is, there's either a fairly rigidly established (and innovation unfriendly) curriculum overseen by some senior figures, or there's some kind of elective system in which, yes, students are left to find their ways. No?


Let me say something that's tangentially related to McGruff's remark that "it's not obvious to me how any kind of traditional sense of the mission of the humanities would be an alternative to this situation." Here 'this situation' refers to the problem of curricular anarchy/regimentation. But there are other senses of 'this situation' for which the remark remains true.

Graff - when he is on about Teaching the Conficts - often thumbnails a certain conflict as 'theory' vs. 'traditional humanism'. He thinks the former has certain decisive advantages. I tend to think that he's quite wrong about who really has the intellectual upper-hand, but that's an argument to be hashed out. I think Graff and others apologists for 'theory' have failed to make a better argument against 'tradition', which is that the 'traditionalist' critics of the status quo in literary studies are so marginalized, institutionally - often they aren't part of the institution at all - that they have acquired the cardinal vice of permanent opposition parties. They have no serious plan for what they would do if they were in power. They are under no obligation to suggest anything that would actually work less badly than what we've got, and it shows. Suppose, say, Roger Kimball were made philosopher king of academic literary and cultural studies tomorrow. What would an MLA that consisted of 30,000 "New Criterion" contributor look-alikes look like? 30,000 folks all raging against the 60's - damn you, hippies! - while quoting Evelyn Waugh in arch tones? A little of that goes a long way. A lot of that wouldn't go very far at all. For one thing, if Roger Kimball were made philosopher king, 9 of the 10 things he likes to write about most would necessarily go away. His is a garrulousness of wrath, as Nietzsche would say. [I've said all this before.]

No one would care about the excesses of theory if there were only a little of it. It's the instutitional grossness of it that dismays and appalls. That there are going to be hordes of over-producing literary and cultural scholars is a foregone conclusion. That they will mimic each other, debasing ideas into mannerisms, is also more or less a foregone conclusion. (Sometimes it is suggested that the difficulty of 'theory' offends. I am unaware of anyone who has seriously critiqued it on that ground. By contrast, many critics are deeply offended by how easy 'theory' is - its breezy, undemanding eclecticism - how a drop of philosophy behind the ears seems to count for more than a drop between the ears.) How to overproduce with the least loss of dignity is a puzzle. I don't think Roger Kimball has a better idea how to do that than, say, Robert Scholes. I don't think either of them has any idea at all how to address this trouble. So the opposition party ought not to have the appearance of an edge in this regard, which they now do.

In his book Graff has a cartoon 'what intellectuals say, what folks hear' and the implication is that the traditionalists are equally unintelligible to the audience. What everyone hears is 'blah blah blah'. I don't think that's right. I think it's probably true that 18 year old freshman find it all unintelligible, but the intelligent public - the readers of the NY Times - think they understand the critics of the academy, who seem to speak a dialect refreshingly free of cant. It's only the ivory tower type who sound 'blah blah blah'. But give the others the keys to the tower and they'll be 'blahing' away in no time. That's the best defense 'theory' can offer against 'tradition', I think. It's not much of a defense, but it should still be made because it focuses us on a real problem: how to overproduce with dignity.


John Holbo writes:

"It's not much of a defense, but it should still be made because it focuses us on a real problem: how to overproduce with dignity."

These days, many academics have their performance assessed by how many papers they publish. Many don't have tenure, and have to keep churning stuff out to keep their academic position. This inevitably results in the publication of a great many papers that aren't worth reading.

Amongt most academics I know, the insidious effects of the current system for measuring performance are the hot topic of conversation (e.g when a conference program committee has just finished sifting through 300 submissions, of which all but five are clear rejects, you can often detect a note of despair amongst the referees...) I'll admit that the current state of the job market is also a hot topic - and the two problems are related.


How to overproduce with the least loss of dignity is a puzzle.

I think, like John, that focusing on the rot of Theory obscures a large part of the issue. Philosophy may be substantially less rotten than literary theory, but it too suffers from overproduction, from the publication of articles and books that objectively speaking, no one ought to read.

Let me rephrase John's point another way. Are there approaches to the humanities which minimize the need for overproduction? What is it the humanities ought to be producing, and why?

If one conceives the humanities on the model of the natural and social sciences, the primary responsibility of a professor will be research, amd his product scholarship. There will be journals, and prodigious production of articles to fill these journals.

If one construes the academic humanities as the keystone of liberal education, or as a curatorship of culture, then the primary responsibility of an academic will be teaching. The “product” on this conception, will be educated students. On this model an academic will write one or two books in his entire career. These would, perhaps, be better books.

It is easy to see why the humanities would be ensorcelled by the appeal of the sciences, and by the model of knowledge and scholarship that apply there. Even if analogous methodolgies could be found, the humanities will run into a difficulty over the product. We want chemist-scholars and biologist-scholars (maybe economist-scholars and sometimes also historian-scholars) because we want the research they produce. The MLA has 30,000 members, but I do not think there is a yearly demand for 60,000,000 man-hours of literary criticism.

This is why Timothy Burke’s analogy of faithless priests is so on the money. There is a faith that supports 30,000 scholars – and that’s a faith in a scientific enterprise. If at one time literary studies made pathetic gestures towards science and expertise*, this effort is now largely abandoned. Another faith, faith in liberal education and the possibility of ennoblement by great art, justifies 30,000 teachers. This conception of the humanities has usually been rejected by capital “T” Theory.

The point is that the scientific/theorist approach to the humanities requires overproduction. The other does not. I believe that most critics of the academic humanities perceived as “conservative” [even if their criticisms, like Allan Bloom’s, are essentially apolitical] are not advocating a different kind of literary science, they are suggesting that the pretence to science stop.

*John’s platonic dialog, I recall, mocks an effort by Eagleton along these lines.


I would add that by all accounts there is overproduction in all fields, baa - in the natural sciences, too. Any time you reward people for publishing, you incentivize them to pad their CV's and you end up with stuff out there that shouldn't be. But it's a much more serious problem in literary studies than in philosophy (or in biology, or math.)

Tommy Jadoo

You may find my thoughts on Guillory of interest: BowTieRepublican.com

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