Higher Education

Graff's "courseocentrism" and post-disciplinary curriculum

Derek writes on Graff's recent IHE article on the issue of "courseocentrism." There are a number of interesting points in Graff's article.

At a time when amazing new forms of connectivity are made possible by
new digital technologies and when much of the best recent work in the
humanities has made us more aware of the social and collective nature
of intellectual work, we still think of teaching in ways that are
narrowly private and individualistic, as something we do in isolated
classrooms with little or no knowledge of what our colleagues are doing
in the next classroom or the next building and little chance for each
other’s courses to become reference points in our own.

I think this is fairly self-evident to most academics. It is perhaps why faculty are so concerned about the threat of network access in the classroom.

In a succinct formulation of the point that Michael Bérubé offered me
after hearing a talk in which I struggled to articulate it, any two
eggheads, no matter how far apart ideologically, will always be far
closer to each other than to non-eggheads. Again, the reason is that
eggheads — intellectuals — whether they are on the Left or the Right,
are defined and differentiated from outsiders by their membership in a
common culture of ideas and arguments, a common culture that our
curricular mixed messages hide from our students and our
non-communicating courses hide from us.

In the end, it is this common culture that Graff would have us make the common point of our curriculum. You could take this even further and point out that very few intellectuals outside of English Studies care about the kinds of issues that often brutally divide departments. In a sense you could suggest that what defines English Studies in an affective (and intellectual) investment in a particular terrain.

I would hestitate to term that as  a "common culture" as Graff does, and I wouldn't hazard to name that terrain, since the name is part of the contest, right? The only reason I call it a terrain is that there is an apparent agreement that we are arguing over something finite. If it weren't finite then why would we bother fighting over it? So what is "it"? It could be something as mundane as resources: students, money, prestige. These are all certainly finite. Or perhaps it is fanaticism or devotion or ideological commitment. This terrain is our "holy land." We cannot share it with nonbelievers. To recall Monty Python's Life of Brian, to those invested there is something at stake in whether one chooses to follow the shoe or follow the gourd. But to the outsider it is quite absurd.

In such contexts, courseocentrism is detente. Don't ask; don't tell. Unfortunately, as Graff points out, this pushes the burden of resolving these intellectual differences onto our students who have to shuttle from one course to the next. For good or for bad, most of them come to view the incongruencies between their classes as idiosyncratic differences between individual teachers. They respond pragmatically. In any case, the differences probably don't matter to them anyway.

This is unfortunate because the differences are probably the most interesting things about our discipline. After all, they are the things we get most excited about, right? This might lead toward Graff's "teaching the conflicts," but the problem with that approach is that it imagines a rational meta-discourse in which conflicts can be situated. All we really get is another layer of conflicts over how to teach the conflicts. Ahhh… the supplement.

So in the tradition of supplements, here's another. The "problem" with disciplinary curriculum, particularly at the undergrad level, is that it seeks to found itself on a disciplinary identity. This is the case whether that identity is a traditiona lit studies curriculum of period-based courses or a professional writing curriculum built on specific genres. A post-disciplinary curriculum might organize itself around the question of discipline itself. Now you might rightly ask what student would be interested in such a navel-gazing curriculum. And I agree. So you have to ask how this post-disciplinary conversation might be brought to bear upon issues that are of import to our students and more broadly to our culture.

One way of thinking about this might be to ask the question of how to learn to live with new media/electracy and then discussing how our many different perspectives, concerns, methods might be brought to bear on that question.

But I think it has to be more than about sharing our courses. For the most part we hide our perspectives by publishing them in journals few people read (and probably not our colleagues down the hall) and in sparsely-attended conference presentations. It's not our fault, I guess; it's what we're accustomed to doing. And no, I'm not going to say that "blogging" is the answer. But some more public forum of departmental conversation might be worthwhile. And who knows, maybe the sunlight of public discourse would do us some good.