Book Review – They Say, I Say

If I were ever to give five stars to any book, it would be this one: Graff and Birkenstein’s, They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Conversation (India). I own, not just, the hard copy, but several copies of it, because I always need to be ready to leave a copy with a colleague or school, and so I’m never without a copy, I own the Kindle version, too.


This little book wasn’t very well known when I first discovered it, but it’s become quite a hit, often bundled with larger, more expensive textbooks at colleges in the U.S., and it’s gone into several more versions.
I still recommend the first, simplest edition, and it’s the one that’s available now on Kindle in the U.S.

As I said in the review of Lisa Delpit’s book, these first reviews will really shed light on my own pedagogical stance. Nothing does it better than this little jewel.

I told you in the Delpit review, that I first start exploring writing pedagogy because I felt that

“students weren’t being TAUGHT to write. They were being EXPECTED to write, or, more disturbingly, I began to suspect that they were being expected to FAIL at writing.”

About this time, I stumbled on the work of Gerald Graff. In an interview, he confirmed my suspicions:

“I think we’ve gotten accustomed to a system in which the very few excel in school (and reap the rewards in the vocational world beyond) and the many stumble along and more or less get by, or get through, or fail. In some ways such a system suits us academics—it’s not our fault if the majority stumble or fail, we can easily say, that’s just the way it is; only an elite in any society is going to ‘get’ the intellectual club, etc.”

Graff won my heart, because he didn’t just continue to write philosophy and pedagogical theory. He DID something about it. He wrote They Say, I Say (U.S., India).

This book is a simple, practical guide that, I feel may be, really, just a bit subversive.

You see, Graff gives away the keys to the kingdom.

Academic writing, research writing, has always been a gatekeeper skill. As Graff says in another of his books,

There are some academics who say “that when schooling keeps students mystified it is not failing at all, but working all too well at doing exactly what our culture asks it to, sorting students into cognitive haves and have-nots and therefore into society’s winners and losers.”

Graff maintains, “I have never accepted this cynical view of education, but I’m afraid we will go on giving it credibility until we change our practices.”

And then he changes the practices. With They Say, I Say (India).

They Say, I Say begins (see the intro here) by clearly explaining how academic writing is approached as a conversation and then gives easy and effective tools for engaging in the conversation.

Graff’s little green book is a remarkable breakthrough for emerging academic writers. The book alone does not go so far that it helps students develop long forms of research writing. It was, probably, intended for classes of first-year native-speaking composition students, but I’ve used it and extended it, for use for second language writers, even at the PhD level.

Using Graff’s work as a catalyst, I’ve built my own tools that go beyond it to help students write full research papers and theses. More on those later.

I heartily recommend this for any teacher of writing or even for students working alone.

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