Oh, Stanley…

I’m kind of surprised that the only blogger I regularly read who has commented on Stanley Fish’s May 31 New York Times op-ed piece “Devoid of Content” is Jeff Rice. I don’t know; maybe it’s partly the season and the weather. I mean, I’ve been a lot more interested in recovering from Memorial day weekend and golfing this week than posting to this blog too.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a lot of commentary in the comp/rhet community; it’s just all taking place (or so it seems) on the WPA-L mailing list. Follow this link to the May 2005 archives, look at the May 31 or so entries, and look for the subject line “NYTimes.com: Devoid of Content.”

Here’s my take on the piece and my effort at explaining why Fish is (mostly) wrong in it.

Fish’s first paragraph is a bang and a whole bunch of unsubstantiated claims:

We are at that time of year when millions of American college and high school students will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence. How is this possible? The answer is simple and even obvious: Students can’t write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are.

If this were the intro to an essay in my first year composition class, I’d write in the margins “Says who? If you’re going to make such bold claims, you need some evidence to support this, Stanley.”

But okay; I’ll let him get away with this, I guess. I mean, hey, it’s Stanley freakin’ Fish we’re talking about here– which is one of the problems I’ll get back to later.

In his second paragraph, he says:

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

Now, to a certain extent, I kind of agree with this. Kind of. Of course, you can’t completely separate content from form, and one of the reasons why composition studies has been seen by many in and outside the academy (like Stanley Fish, by the way) as “nonsense” is because of a (so-called) lack of content. But I must say I have a hunch/sense/perception (which might be entirely inaccurate) that a lot of people who teach first year composition have turned their classes into mini “current events” seminars or into classes about TV or classes about web page production or multimedia or whatever and have inappropriately de-emphasized the form part of the equation.

I sympathize with what Fish is talking about here, sort of, because of my resistance to the incorporation of “visual rhetoric(s)” into first year writing classes. Besides the fact that language (and rhetoric, for that matter) has always had a “visual” component to it, shouldn’t the written word be interesting enough? I think so, but in some ways, I think a lot of the folks who teach first year composition and the students who take the course don’t agree with me. Instead of working with words, they want to work with pictures and sounds and movies. It’s more “fun,” whatever that means.

I had lunch with Kathi Yancey and Linda Adler-Kassner at this conference thing at Michigan State a couple weeks ago, and while they thought I was way off base with my doubting of visual rhetoric (most sensible people do think I’m off base on this one), Kathi did talk about an interesting “what if,” one that has kind of come up on the WPA mailing list lately. What if the “content” of a first year composition class was “composition?” What would that look like? Hypothetically, would that mean teaching some of the more accessible essays in our field, things by Elbow, Rose, Lunsford and Connors, etc., getting students to write and research about “the writing process?” I don’t know; it might be interesting.

Anyway, back to Fish: I really get pretty jazzed up as a teacher when I get students to pay careful attention to form and shape and style in their writing, so, like I said, I kind of agree with what he’s saying there.

But then things take an unexpected and bizarre kind of turn in the third paragraph:

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions – between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like – that English enables us to make.


And the rest of the essay is basically his reflections/recollections/imaginary memories of how this supposedly “content-free” approach teaches his charges to write that elusive coherent sentence, the one that he claims they were unable to accomplish before him.

Now, as the folks on the WPA mailing list have pointed out (a bit too much, arguably), there are many many holes in this logic. The “content” of this course, clearly, is linguistics, and for Fish to claim that what he is doing is “free” of content either suggests he is surprisingly ignorant of this entire field or he’s just flat-out kidding himself.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Fish was right, that the way composition ought to be taught is as a mini linguistics seminar. The reason why this would (almost certainly) not work is that most of the people who teach composition classes do not know enough about linguistics to effectively construct such an approach. And, as Jeff points out in his post, here is the larger problem with Fish’s argument: in harping on this “content-free” approach to teaching writing (that really isn’t content-free, of course), he is side-stepping the real issues involved in teaching the course: under-prepared students, under-prepared/under-supported instructors, a whole host of issues in English departments and writing programs about the not so simple question of the nature of “writing,” and larger and schizophrenic institutional views of first year composition. At most universities and colleges, first year composition is a course many faculty and students see as a “joke” and, simultaneously, it is absolutely essential, oftentimes the only required course in an undergraduate’s education.

Nope, Fish skips all that. He just talks about how his own content-free approach helps him reach “pedagogical bliss.” Good for you, Stanley, but I suspect the “bliss” is not universally shared by your students.

Now, a lot of folks on the WPA mailing list suggest that we shouldn’t be making that big of a deal out of this. After all, the argument goes, we all know that Fish is wrong, so what’s the point in responding to it?

Well, I for one think the reason we ought to be responding to and making a big deal about this (beyond our mailing lists, of course) is because Fish is so off-base and because it is Stanley Fish we’re talking about.If you were to ask an educated (but not a professional academic) person in this world to name two American literary critics, my guess is that most common names you would get would be Harold Bloom first and Stanley Fish second. (Well, assuming you didn’t get an answer l
ike “I don’t know”). Fish is a guy who has a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, who publishes in the mainstream media at will, and who even pops up as a talking head on cable news once in a while. I’ll bet anyone a doughnut that Fish got this essay published by calling someone up at The New York Times and saying something like “Hey, I’ve got some thoughts on the way composition ought to be taught– would you like to publish it?” and the NYTimes said “Sure! Heck, you’re Stanley Fish!”

Fish is an extremely influential writer and educator, deservedly so (for the most part). People listen to what he has to say, even when he says things that are clearly clearly wrong. If we give Fish a pass on this, then it will become “conventional wisdom” in the popular culture, and that, obviously, would be bad.

Anyway, this is my effort to at least slow that down a bit.

Update (June 3):
The New York Times ran letters in response to Fish today. Check out the link, while it lasts. On the one hand, I am heartened by the fact that all of the letters written by people who decried Fish are identified as some sort of English professor, while all the letters in support of Fish are just identified by name, presumably as “non-experts.” On the other hand, I am also bothered by this, because it means that despite all of our efforts, people “out there” still think that what we academic-types ought to be doing is teaching grammar grammar grammar, because, really, that’s what “good writing” is, right? Agh.

One thought on “Oh, Stanley…”

  1. Stephen, Fish’s article was just published in our local newspaper this week. Thanks for your judicious ideas on the subject.

    I teach Latin at the high school level and am very happy to be able to offer both grammar and content in that class. I would like to make Latin required in 7th and 8th grades, so that students will come to high school English and foreign languages (whether Latin or something else) much better equipped to do well. Unfortunately, 95% of Latin enthusiasts want to do advanced research and leave the teaching to someone else.

    Incidentally, at Duke University a freshman comp instructor told me there are no readings at all, only videos.

    Breakfast with Pandora

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