You think you got problems?!

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Last week, the students in my genre theory course read another of those sine qua non essays about academic publishing, Richard McNabb's "Making the gesture: Graduate student submissions and the expectation of journal referees" [via FindArticles], and as I was cruising the web looking for a nice handout-sized thumbnail of John Swales's description of creating a research space, I came across Joe Williams's monograph Problems into PROBLEMS: A Rhetoric of Motivation, which was announced at Kairosnews back in February.

I can't do much more than gush about Williams at this point--I'll definitely be teaching Williams and Swales alongside McNabb in the fall. Williams's monograph is a careful exploration, supported by some pretty broad, multimodal research, of how to write introductions, and more to the point, how to pose a PROBLEM in the academic sense. Among a number of smart things in this document:

Our students find this kind of thinking bizarre. But it’s what we do -- a kind of Zen locksmithing: we have made a key that fits a lock before we have made the lock that fits the key.

Students may find it bizarre, but I still think that there are plenty of us who find it opaque, or who learn how to do it without necessarily articulating what it is that we're doing. And Williams does, in painstaking detail. Not only will my graduate students in the fall be reading this, but I'm going to require it of all my dissertators as well. Believe me when I say that it's worth a couple of hours of your time, if you're writing for an academic audience.

That is all.


Thanks for posting the Williams pdf link. This is worth reading at several levels of academic work. But...and I have to go back through this piece...Williams reduces all writing to "a problem." That, in itself, can be a problem. Writing as question, as discovery, as mapping out...there may in fact be no problem at hand, or the problem may not emerge until later. Many articles begin and work that way. I often start with an observation or an anecdote (what Williams seems to dismiss for the introduction) and then use that moment to unfold a discussion.
Still, this is good reading, particularly at the graduate level where students sometimes struggle to have something to say and to figure out how to say it.

Yeah, I think that, according to this at least, I'm a really bad introduction writer. Heh. But one of the things I really like about it is its inclusion of the "community of readers" as an indispensable element of valid capital-P problems--that may be part of why I really found it appropriate for graduate education, in fact...

I'm curious what you think about Gerald Graff's Clueless in Academe and his points about The Problem Problem and how, because academics make problems out of everything, we lose undergraduates and those outside the academy because what we see as a problem is not a big deal to them.

I taught all of Graff's book last semester in my WAC class; it received mixed reviews.

I haven't read Graff's book, so I probably shouldn't comment, but my gut reaction is to suggest that the Problem Problem occurs when we try to pose our problems outside of our immediate community of readers without understanding that this should have an effect on how we pose them. Look at all the success of writers like Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Leavitt, Howard Gardner, Virginia Postrel, etc. Each of them is taking up issues that are of some interest to us as academics, but they're posing the problems in terms of interest to a general reading public. Heck, even Graff does it in his title, right?

I must admit that I'm curious now, though, so maybe I'll pick Graff's book up. Thanks for the tip...

Thanks for the link, I downloaded's on my
(long) list of reads.

I've read Graff's book and taught it. What I like: Graff identifies the importance of popular culture to intellectualism (it is not outside of our interests, but, in fact, shapes our interests...thus "academe" is clueless in its often rejection of popular culture).
What I don't like: Graff reduces problem solving/argumentation to formulas. And he is very open about a textbook he is writing which will work accordingly to the formula of posing a problem. And when I say formula, I mean formula. Graff shows us a very specific fill in the blanks for starting an argument.
That part of the book works against his interests in popular culture, much in the way the Open University worked against the logic of popular culture when it foregrounded it as an object of study. Graff doesn't show how popular culture shapes thought. Instead, he just uses it as something else to talk about in formulaic ways.

I saw GGraff present at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Association last year and he passed out the fill-in-the blank formula that Jeff mentions and challenged everyone in the audience to come up w/ a topic that could not be put into those blanks.

How quickly --and loudly-- some people challenged Graff as he and his wife used the power of the mircophone to make their blanks heard.

Oh, the blankity-blanks that followed! :)

Afterwards, I had ocassion to ask them both about Melville's Bartleby's elocution "I prefer not to," insofar as their formula was concerned. I can't remember specifically which formula, but I remember Dr. (Mrs.) Graff smiling and saying she that that is a strange thing to say.

Agamben and Deleuze, of course, have done much to render the sense of "I prefer not to" in their respective essays on Bartelby. See, too, Vitanza.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on June 25, 2005 11:18 PM.

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