What Stanley Fish doesn’t know about writing could fill a universe

Stanley Fish has a new book coming out called Save The World On Your Own Time, in which, among other things apparently, he decries the ways in which politics have crept into the classrooms of university professors and how it ought to stop. What professors are supposed to do is teach and that’s that. He has an interview here in Inside Higher Ed where he talks about this and some of his other views.

Frankly, I think he’s kind of lost his marbles.

Toward the end of the interview, there’s this exchange:

Q: You describe a novel approach to handling state lawmakers who control the purse strings, a tactic you used during your time as a dean: criticizing, even belittling them, in public. Did it work?

A: It worked in a limited sense. My response was, look, higher education administrators go hat in hand … they’re always in a begging or petitionary posture, and that just doesn’t work. People don’t in fact respond well to that, and I found what they did respond well to was confrontation of an aggressive kind…. If you say to state legislators, “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about! What if I came to your offices and told you within five minutes and without having any experience … what it is you should be doing, you’d throw me out, laughing me out of the room.” Well that’s what we should be doing…. “What do you know about 18th-century French poetry? …”

If you embarrass people … if you make them afraid of you, you are in a better position than you are if you go to them on your knees. [S]econd, which might seem contradictory … is that most people who are not in or of the academy are fascinated by it. On the one hand they disdain it in part because they believe the academy disdains them. But on the other hand they would like to be initiated into [its] pleasures.

Okay; using this ill-advised strategy, let me try to poke at the Fish a bit.

Fish argues that politics just don’t be a part of the act/job of being a professor, and that even extends to faculty offices. He said in response to a question about this:

“It’s my conviction that teachers should not have posters … on the doors of their office that indicate some political, partisan or ideological affiliation. The office … is an extension of the scene of teaching, and no student should enter an office [believing that] some ideas are going to be preferred and others are better not uttered. The larger part are those professors who are sincerely convinced that it is their job to take their students and mold both their characters and their ideological views….”

This response strikes me as typical on Fish’s approach to politics in that glosses over just exactly what he means by “politics.” I can see a point in not having an “Impeach Bush” sticker on my door, though that is a choice I make– it’s not one that ought to be imposed from some administrator. There is this whole free speech thing.

But beyond the obvious, politics are a much more messy affair than this, and I would think that Fish is smart enough to recognize that. For example, I have in my office (among many other things) a print by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a somewhat controversial artist of the 1980’s. I have an inflatable “Scream” doll,along with a poster of the famous Edvard Munch’s painting which inspired the doll. I have a lot of other toys and knick-knacks in there, and I am often listening to rock-n-roll music on my computer. Don’t these things send a particular “political” message, one that clearly signals “not conservative?” Seriously, would anyone who would think this was the office of a Republican?

But here’s the exchange that really got to me:

Q: But even aside from political implications, you argue, especially in the teaching of writing, that such agendas can actually have a negative effect on learning.

A: Whether anyone notices it or not or comments on it or not, the teaching of writing in universities is a disaster. [There is] the conviction on the part of many composition teachers that what they are really teaching is some form of social justice, and that the teaching of writing … takes a back seat. And in fact in many classrooms the teaching of writing as a craft as something that has rules with appropriate decorums … is in fact demonized as an indication of the hegemony of the powers that be. This happens over and over again in classrooms and it’s an absolute disaster.

As Fish himself puts it, “’You guys Professor Fish don’t know what you’re talking about! What if I came to your offices and told you within five minutes and without having any experience … what it is you should be doing, you’d throw me out, laughing me out of the room.’ Well that’s what we should be doing…. ‘What do you know about 18th-century French poetrywriting pedagogy or what is happening in any of the tens of thousands of different writing classes in this country? …'”

First off, the implication that partisan politics is typically present in writing courses is just flat-out wrong. Show me a writing course– particularly a first year writing course– where there is an overt political agenda (e.g., “all students this semester will write essays researching and supporting the proposition that George W. Bush ought to be impeached”), and I will show you a writing program administrator speaking to that instructor and saying “hey, you can’t really do that.”

And clearly, writing teachers still teach “rules” and “appropriate decorums” in writing classes. It is just that we probably don’t teach them the way Fish would like us to teach them, because the scholarship and practices of the field of composition studies (which, clearly, Fish is unaware even exists) for decades has indicates these rules and decorums are best taught within the context of actual writing. As one of my colleagues puts it, we do not not teach grammar.

Second, as Fish surly knows, rhetoric has always been something more than “craft” or correctness. It has always involved a consideration of “truth” (or, as the political conservative Plato would have it, falsehoods), it has always been about persuasion, it has always been about teaching civics, and it has always implied certain social/political judgements (“good men speaking well”). The very act of teaching rhetoric suggests that there may be more than one answer to a problem, and that is at odds with a great many conservatives in this country.

Sure, teaching writing is about “social justice” to an extent; but so is teaching everything else, especially in public universities and community colleges that extend education to a population that wouldn’t have had access to it a few generations ago. Public education– particularly public higher education– is clearly a political issue with partisan divisions. Generally speaking, conservatives want to spend fewer tax dollars on such things, and liberals want to spend more. This tug of war has been going on in the state of Michigan for some time now, where we have a legislature with a slight Republican majority and a governor who is a Democrat, and it is something that is potentially going to play itself out on the national stage in politics this year. I believe Obama has already advocated more money for higher education funding because of “social justice” and the importance of access to higher education for people to better themselves; my guess is that McCain and his ilk will present a different message about self-sustainability, lower taxes, pulling ones self up by bootstraps, etc.

So, given this, how can I practice my job and not advocate “social justice?”

It’s sad and intriguing to see Fish become such a crabby old man who has been empowered by the New York Times and other publications to spout on topics he clearly knows nothing about. I have to wonder how much longer that is going to last; at what point will he embarrass himself?

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