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Composition Forum 18, Summer 2008

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. W.W. Norton, 2006: 164pp.

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Jason Arthur and Anne Case-Halferty

In Beyond the Culture Wars (1992) and, a decade later, in Clueless in Academe (2003), Gerald Graff offered arguments that spurred much debate about the content, nature, and efficacy of academic intervention into the arguments of public life. In the 1990s, he urged teachers to “teach the conflicts,” to build undergraduate curricula from the very issues of public controversy that carry the day. And most recently he urges us to understand the “cluelessness” we encounter when we teach the conflicts incorrectly. Cluelessness, he contends, is not an “uninteresting negative condition” or “blank space to be filled in by superior knowledge”; it is not a synonym for ignorance (5). Instead, cluelessness is a byproduct of Graff’s contention that academics deliberately misunderstand their job responsibilities. With chapter titles such as “The Problem Problem” and the “Mixed-Message Curriculum,” Graff wags his finger at academics for deliberately not introducing students to what he views as their primary job as university citizens: to enter conversations and make arguments. Graff believes that, when equipped with such preliminary knowledge, students not only get a clue but also help renew the vitality of academia.

To this end, Graff and Birkenstein have recently published a textbook “companion” to Clueless titled They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (2006). The textbook’s stated aim is to “democratiz[e] academic culture.” This democratization comes by way of various fill-in-the-blank templates for entering a “conversation about ideas,” a phrase Graff and Birkenstein lift from the mission statement of their university’s first-year writing program. As the authors themselves put it, “the best academic writing…is deeply engaged in some way with other people’s views” (ix). In other words, student writing improves when students learn how to identify and explain an argument in the context of its counterarguments. They Say / I Say formalizes way of identifying and explaining counterarguments via templates such as, “In recent discussions of __________, a controversial issues has been whether __________ or __________”; “Though I concede that __________, I still insist that __________”; and “At the same time thatI believe __________, I also believe __________.” By touting the prominence of templates, Graff and Birkenstein are making an implicit argument about the inherent value of student arguments: what “you say” doesn’t matter unless you can correctly differentiate it from what “they say” and in accordance with appropriate, obligatory rhetorical patterns.

Graff and Berkenstein intend this template-centered, traditional-to-the-point-of-being-clinical textbook to implement a progressive, social constructionist agenda. It envisions the roll of first-year writing as an introduction to the requirements of critical citizenship. This language, reminiscent of civic education, pervades the prefatory and introductory material. The introduction (“Entering the Conversation”) explains that “the wider worlds of civic discourse and work” share many of the same “moves” as “academic thinking and writing” (2). Graff and Birkenstein thus present the academy as a “public sphere” whose free exchange of ideas is governed by the reason and manners of civil society. The “moves that matter” therefore add up to a discursive etiquette dictating how a writer’s unique argument is to be contained within a conversational apparatus.

To better understand the purpose of They Say / I Say, we need to revisit Clueless and the “progressive traditionalism” (261) it claims to promote. Graff’s understanding of progressive traditionalism, which he shares with Lisa Delpit, Tom Lovelace, and Deborah Meier, presupposes that “to many students, the very concept of ‘education’ is nebulous and is never explained” (262-263). Strictly progressive pedagogies fail to organize “the world of school knowledge and ideas” into “a coherent and intelligible culture whose practices make sense” (263). This not only produces the average student’s cluelessness, it also, as Graff echoes Delpit, “has the effect of withholding secrets from the minority students that need it most” (267). Accordingly, when introducing students to the models and methods of the kind of writing and thinking that will make or break their college careers, teachers should not pretend that fostering the unique complexities of student thought is an adequate substitute for teaching the rules of rhetoric imposed by their institutions. Graff and others argue that fights against “the standards” are rigged to the extent that these standards still, at grade time, trump the valuing of rhetorical difference and experimentation. Graff implies that most instructors still have to rank and evaluate their students based on institutional norms that are counterproductive to the “liberal intentions” of social constructivists. Consequently, Graff and Birkenstein insist that fighting standardization might not yield the kind of writing that is likely to be much help to students, especially those struggling to get a clue about what teachers really want. The strategy for fighting standardization that Graff and Birkenstein thus object to is that of privileging unique voices and writing styles for one semester, only to send inexperienced writers back into a university system that does not recognize diverse variance as a sign of a successful student. In line with the progressive traditionalist position, Graff and Birkenstein argue in favor of teaching students the rules and skills of “the game.”

Games are important metaphors for Graff. They Say / I Say models a kind of game in its oscillation toward and away from expressionist notions that autonomous voices (the “I says”) are more important to study and live by than are the codes and rules of inhuman systems. The “I say” of the textbook is facilitated by blanks wherein students agree, disagree, or do some combination of both. Anticipating the likely problem that students may not know whether they agree or disagree, Graff and Birkenstein structure that textbook so that they do not introduce “ways of responding” until after exhausting the “arts” of summarizing and quoting. These arts are taught through templates for introducing ongoing debates. Directly evoking Peter Elbow’s “believing game,” an exercise in They Say / I Say instructs students to “inhabit the worldview of those whose conversation you are joining” (29). This is a game that, when played correctly, not only broadens the horizons available for forming one’s own opinion, but also lays out an opposing viewpoint in such a way that a writer can demonstrate her specific point of disagreement.

They Say / I Say claims to affirm the primary importance of traditional rules and manners while also “democratizing” them. Implying that their objective is more “progressive” than “traditionalist,” Graff and Birkenstein seek to hand the means of production over to first-year writers. This Marxist economic language is stretched throughout the textbook. For instance, Graff and Birkenstein refer to summaries as the “joint property” of a writer and her source text (34). Their templates seek to give inexperienced writers the empowered sense of steering complex debates, of not only having a right but also a means to claim their academic rights. According to They Say / I Say, students can build most of a coherent academic argument by simply crafting an effective arrangement of templates. For instance, consider the following arrangement:

In recent discussions of __________, a controversial issue has been whether __________ or __________. On the one hand, one group of observers argues that __________. On this view, __________. As one of the most prominent proponents of this view, __________, puts it, “__________.” On the other hand, another group of observers replies that __________. According to this group, __________. In sum, then, while one group argues __________, another argues __________.

My own view is that, while it is true that __________, this latter/former group is right because __________. On my view, __________. For example, __________. Of course those who believe __________ might object that __________. In sum, then, I would argue that __________—an important point to make given __________.

At first this hundred-word container might seem enticing to students, a foolproof path into a well-reasoned and relevant argument that matters to someone other than the writer. And yet, even when the writer has no choice but to make all the “proper” conversational moves in the “appropriate” order, it is still possible to wind up with a weak argument. This template might fail more than it succeeds since its rhetorical shorthand seems not to allow the necessary room for development.

They Say / I Say doesn’t teach analytic writing. As the preface explains, it doesn’t teach the “logical principles of argument” (xvii). In the absence of such lessons, the first sentence of the second above paragraph above can produce many species of incoherent claims whose flaws are difficult to isolate; blanks can easily be filled with flawed syntax and illogic that a student would not otherwise have produced without the authoritative guidance of the template. With this academic version of Madlibs, certain dead ends are so stifling that they might produce a species of cluelessness rendering the question “What do I mean?” unanswerable. In this sense, Graff and Birkenstein replace one brand of cluelessness with another. The student knows the basic moves of her job, but she just doesn’t know what she’s producing. In a sense, They Say / I Say is a variation on the My Fair Lady plot: instilling the correct rhetorical manners within the student, emphasizing form over content, delivery over substance.

By teaching students to reduce every argument down to a single-issue conflict, Graff and Birkenstein inherently limit the possible insights that a writer can draw from normally multivalent academic debates. By teaching students to vulgarize an argument, to reduce it down to a single clash, the authors encourage oversimplification and deliberate ignorance of the complexity of a given conversation. Of course, many arguments eventually boil down to two sides. Graff certainly argues in Clueless that deliberately reductive abstractions, what he calls “intellectual sound bites,” are sometimes useful (140). According to Graff, without such gems as “I think therefore I am,” “The personal is the political,” or “Always historicize!,” we would never have learned, let alone been able to teach, such complex ideas as Cartesian rationalism, second-wave feminism, or Fredric Jameson. Yet, in order to be accepted into the on-going intellectual conversation, one must not just know famous taglines, but also be able to detect less dominant perspectives surrounding the issue. While templates allow a student to enter into an academic conversation with an identifiable form, its reductive approach to complex issues leads to a discussion whose discussants are obliged to represent only the most dominant and sound-bitable voices of past discussions.

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