Teaching Literature and Writing: An Interview with Professor Gerald Graff University of Illinois-Chicago

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Professor Gerald Graft has published several landmark books on the study of literature, composition, and teaching. A couple of those highlights are the well-received Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (1979), and his Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma (1980). Professor Graft, however, became best known for his book a decade later, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1989), cited over the years as the best recent book detailing how the study of literature in the university evolved from its origins in rhetoric to become a discipline all its own. As the culture wars heated up, Dr. Graft argued insistently--in his Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992)--that rather than our recruiting students to become unwitting partisans in literary academe's often arcane battles, we should teach all sides of the issues and so invite both undergraduates and graduate students to join in the conversations that we have all conducted so passionately. He then joined up with the narratologist, James Phelan, in developing two casebooks--on Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1995) and on Shakespeare's The Tempest (2000)--that attempted to do just that: using the casebook approach to help close the gap between literary critical discourse and student discourse. It appeared to be only a modest leap from casebooks to a detailed discussion on teaching literature and writing generally in his Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (2003). And that study was followed by a jointly authored book (with Cathy Birkenstein) titled They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (2005). This latest book advocates teaching beginning writers to make an interesting return to the formalist templates that many associate with the classic rhetoricians. Professors Graft and Birkenstein have in a sense completed the circle and have helped students who are learning to read literature and learning to write once again embrace both together as they so often did during classes at the origins of literary study in the 19th century.

In October, 2007,--just prior to his assuming the presidency of MLA in January, 2008--I sat down with Professor Graff in his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago. As the recently appointed editor of Style, I mentioned my interest in broadening the appeal of the journal in several directions, not the least of which included adding conversations and debates on the pedagogy of literature and language teaching. Few are better able than Gerald Graft to open this new window into what I hope will display some stimulating discussions intersecting literature, criticism, writing, and education.

JVK: I'm going to start with the more recent They Say / I Say. (1) I sent it to my daughter who teaches at a couple of community colleges in the Chicago area. She loved the book and incorporated it into her own teaching. What she has found is that many of her students have trouble in playing the "believing game" that you and your wife, Cathy Birkenstein, discuss in your book. She also finds it difficult to teach students who don't read widely to avoid the list summaries or the closest cliche syndrome. Is there anything about these issues that you want to add that is not in your book? Any thoughts you've had since publication of They Say / I Say?

GG: I think most of us, not only students, have trouble playing what Peter Elbow has called the "believing game," which is to try to imagine what it would feel like to entertain beliefs that threaten our own, instead of instinctively dismissing them. (2) Few of us are generous enough to put ourselves in the shoes of those whose beliefs we don't agree with, and the farther their beliefs are from ours, the harder it is for us to do so. It seems counterintuitive to think against our own pet beliefs, but such counterintuitive behavior, according to our textbook, is what persuasive and creative writers do; they imagine the position of those who think their beliefs are false or even absurd. …