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

  1. Andre says:

    He’s making some interesting points, but I’m confused by his claim that politics have been creaping into the classroom as if it’s a newish thing. Maybe it was new when Socrates did it, but I doubt it.

  2. Kevin says:


    What about your office signals “not conservative”? I don’t see anything in your description that would strike myself, a libertarian-to-conservative person, as out of place in the office of a member of the Federalist Society, a Chicago economist, or in the offices of the National Review.

    Everyone listens to rock music. I know conservatives and libertarians who listen to Bruce Cockburn, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Ice Cube – because those acts have got good songs, and they’re the songs they grew up listening to. They also listen to funk, hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B, house, trance, drum ‘n’ bass and electro. The only music that would make me immediately assume the listener wasn’t conservative would be … acoustic folk music that could be identified as modern rather than pre-WWII? Though big-sound modern country would probably signal someone as a conservative.

    It’s not your Scream doll; I’ve got one myself; it’s a typical office toy. And in my experience, an office full of toys is no indication of the occupant’s politics, just of his or her nerdiness and lack of pompousness.

    Is it the prints? I’m more a “regular museum-goer” than someone who follows art, but I know Basquiat and Munch as artists well enough to match their names to their famous works, and I’m not aware that either of them was emblematic of any particular politics. Do you expect that they’re a signal as clear as a Che icon, or an NRA poster? If so, how many of the visitors to your office do you think are aware of that?

  3. Steve Krause says:

    Well, maybe my office decor is a bad example, though I turn to that one since Fish makes the argument that it would be bad thing to have a political poster in an office. I guess my main point here is that in all the times I have heard Fish make these kinds of arguments, I have never heard/read him define just exactly what it is he means by “politics.”

    Perhaps associating politics with Basquiat and Munch is a bit of a reach, but it is not impossible. Basquiat was a street kid and a graffiti artist who was brought to prominence (in part) by that “weirdo” artist Andy Warhol and the art critic Rene Ricard (and all those art critics are a bunch of liberals, right?), and who set a terrible life example with his excessive drug use and eventual early death from an overdose. Munch’s life wasn’t quite as short and drugged as Basquiat’s, but he too was associated with anarchism, a sort of bohemian/”free love” lifestyle, and his art was at different times in his life very controversial. It would be possible for someone “in the know” and with rather strident politics to see these things not as toys or as mere decoration but rather as being inherently liberal.

    But suppose I had a big poster of Jesus in my office, or suppose I taught and presented myself around campus wearing a giant cross– and btw, there is a faculty member who I don’t really know at EMU who does exactly that. It would probably be easier for me to associate this with a religious message that suggests a certain kind of conservative politics; is that what Fish means?

    The sort of examples of a politicized writing classroom that Fish is pointing to (I think) are classes where there is required reading on issues having to do with environmentalism, race, gender, etc. Is this what Fish means by politics? Are these things inherently political and/or partisan?

    I could go on, but my point is simply that it would be nice to know what Fish means by “politics” so I could find out if I agree with him on this or not.

  4. Andre says:

    I’m a bit unclear as to what wouldn’t be political. Even teaching Fish’s ideas will obviously lead to political issues.

    Is the poster of Che Guevara in my office political? I never thought of it that way. I just think he’s cute.

  5. Kevin says:

    Andre – if you know who Fish is, I’m pretty sure you’re trolling.

    If you hadn’t given that away, I’d actually have to wonder. There are a lot of kids out there in Che T-shirts who don’t know any more about him than that he was “revolutionary”, and we saw what happened to Cameron Diaz and her red star handbag in Peru.

  6. Steve Krause says:

    Nah, I know Andre– he’s just kidding around, but he’s making a point all at the same time.

    If by “political,” Fish only meant base partisan politics, then his claims wouldn’t be that controversial. But he must mean more than that since he criticizes curriculums that don’t “just stick to the facts” and that stray into things like discussions of social justice, feminism, the environment, etc.

    So both Che Guevara and the Cameron Diaz handbag examples are interesting here: Diaz, if I recall this story, wasn’t trying to make a political point; she just thought she had a cool handbag. It was the Peruvians who perceived her as making a political point, one endorsing the communist rebels who have been living in the jungle down there and occasionally kidnapping people and such (they just let a bunch go the other day, btw).

    For me, both this example and the example of Che Guevara t-shirts being worn only as a fashion statement again illustrate the problem of politics here, and it is a problem that Fish can’t get out of, I don’t think: everything, including the mere existence of publicly supported institutions of higher learning that employ professors, is potentially political.

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