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Translating the Rules of the Game

Over the so-called semester “break,” I cruised through two books that had been on my “to-read” list for a while: Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale University Press) and Rebecca D. Cox’s The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (Harvard University Press). As the titles suggest, these two texts address how professors and the dominant cultures of academe often unintentionally undermine a fundamental goal of higher education: to produce educated people. For example, Graff discusses the culture of argumentation and problematics in academe: Individuals who are successfully socialized into academe — mainly professors and students with good grades — a) frame their perspectives and analyzes as an argument and b) see just about everything as a “problem.” Graff insightfully points out that in academe — strangely, to outsiders — arguments and problems are good. In fact, contrary to conventional logic, we should look for chances to create them! (Aside: Once while describing the dissertation process and my defense to one of my undergraduate classes, students asked who attacked my dissertation and why. Good question!)

One point not directly addressed in these two important texts is the relevance of culture to these barriers and mistranslations — a topic that has received much more attention in K-12 scholarly literature compared with higher education. Students enter college classrooms from different speech and discourse communities related to culture. Accordingly, argumentation can be experienced as personalized/impersonalized, linear/nonlinear, sequential/nonsequential, as well as other features. While argumentation is just one example, the larger and more important point is that professors have the obligation to translate the rules of academe to students. And by “rules,” I am not referring to the ones in the student handbook; I’m referring to equally important ones that shape who gets ahead and behind in the classroom. 

For example: When we have student-led discussion in my classes, while explaining the format of the learning exercise, I often make it explicit to students that in an academic space, articulating a disagreement with someone is a sign of respect. In other words, if someone thinks you are wrong, and he or she takes the time to explain in detail why, it is a sign of respect. In fact, doing so is related to a definitive quality of academe: the production and refinement of knowledge, whether that be in a peer-reviewed journal or a classroom. I tell students if one dismisses your perspective without engaging in it, then that is disrespect.

One point I had to admit to while reading Graff and Cox’s books is that I don’t always translate such rules of academe to students after their first year. I make deliberate efforts for first-year students, but after that, I often assume that students should have it by now and that any subsequent penalties are deserved. So at the start of this new semester, I am taking a more deliberate effort to translate the rule of the academic game to upperclassmen too.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences and lives.

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