Graff’s discussion of Tannen

I’m borrowing Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind by Gerald Graff, from Sara Jameson, who recommended that I read Chapter 4: “Two Cheers for the Argument Culture.”

In this chapter, Graff discusses Deborah Tannen’s book The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, a book in which Tannen argues that we debate too much and instead need a culture based more on listening and dialogue. Graff brings up the very valid point that “Tannen herself falls into a needless polarization of ‘debate’ versus ‘dialogue,’ as in her book’s original subtitle. The mistake here lies in setting up debate and dialogue as polar opposites, when they are better seen as complementary moments in the process of social exchange, which constantly alternates between the adversarial and the consensual” (87-88).

Graff also points out that Tannen’s book does just what it seems to deplore because it has a confrontational quality (89). Graff also points out that Tannen’s book does validate conflict and accepts that it’s necessary, but Tannen seems to forget that when she attacks polemics.

This particularly struck me as interesting, in regards to classrooms:

Far from the excess of contentiousness that Tannen sees in today’s classrooms, then, I find much too little. Classroom disagreement rarely moves beyond the traditional trading of opinions and observations–Pythonesque “mere contradiction”–to enable the differences to be worked through. Even the angry recent confrontations over differences of race, ethnicity, and gender have taken place mostly outside classrooms, where these differences are usually expressed in a noncontroversial airing of “alternative perspectives” and in the choice of assigned authors. The compositionist Joseph Harris rightly describes this evasive celebration of differences as “a kind of multicultural bazaar, where [students] are not so much brought into conflict with opposing views as placed in a kind of harmless connection with a series of exotic others. (92)

This same sort of engagement, but even more conflict-free, is what occurs in high school classes as well, according to Graff.

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