October 23, 2006

Stanley Fish to professors: "Do your job."

It's not about free speech. (And his speech isn't free either: you need TimesSelect to read it.)

So, do your job... and make sure you understand what your job is. What is your job? Per Fish, two things:
1) to introduce students to materials they didn’t know a whole lot about, and 2) to equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so, after the semester is over. That’s it. That’s the job....

There is an obvious objection to what I have just said. Any course of instruction, especially in the social sciences and humanities, will touch on deep moral and political issues. The materials students are asked to read will be fraught with them. Wouldn’t it be impossible to avoid discussing these issues without trivializing and impoverishing the classroom experience? No, it’s easy. You don’t have to ignore or ban moral and political questions. What you have to do is regard them as objects of study rather than as alternatives you and your students might take a stand on.

That is, instead of asking questions like “What should be done?” or “Who is in the right?” you ask, “What are the origins of this controversy?” or “What relationship does it have to controversies taking place in other areas of inquiry?” or “What is the structure of argument on both sides?” I have coined an ugly word for this way of turning politically charged matters into the stuff of academic investigation. The word is academicize. To academicize a topic is to detach it from the context of its real-world urgency, where there is a decision to be made, and re-insert it into a context of an academic urgency, where there is an analysis to be performed.
Should you do that? Can you do that?

I've been through this before with Fish (who's said this before). A key problem with it for me is that here his idea contradicts our longstanding policy, which we call the Wisconsin Idea.

11 comments:

The Drill SGT said...

I like this weeks Fish'ng better than last.

Joe said...

Maybe I'm reading Fish wrong and didn't understand The Wisconsin Ideal, but they seem to complement each other, not contradict each other.

As I understand it, The Wisconsin Ideal is that education is to be practical; that it is to result in real benefits to the tax payers of the state.

If I'm misunderstanding either, feel free to correct me.

JohnF said...

I think the Wisconsin idea is meaninless. What does not being an ivory tower mean? Well, whatever you want.

Fish's point seems to be that you can study the real world without having to make moral judgments in the classroom. To my way of thinking, this is the distinction between rational discourse on interesting ideas and irrational discourse founded, ultimately, on moral values that cannot be argued about in rational terms.

To me, an ivory tower is isolated from the real world, and it is easy to say a university shouldn't be isolated from the real world. I don't know what "Wisconsin" thinks being an ivory tower is, but if it is being isolated from the real world, Fish is not advocating that--far from it. He is just giving a way of talking about the real world that admits of actual discussion instead of what, ultimately, is just yelling.

Seven Machos said...

God forbid that anyone in a classroom would make a moral judgment of any kind. Except for blanket approval of politically-correct orthodoxy, of course.

Has there ever been a more vapid intellectual than Stanley Fish?

Daryl Herbert said...

What is the Wisconsin Idea? I clicked over to the page, and none of the people in the examples describing the Wisconsin Idea were doing typical undergrad things. But then, none of them were undergrads...

The main type of break described--allowing outsiders with non-academic jobs to take advantage of the university's resources--is a break with the ivory tower mentality, but doesn't involve students or professors breaking with it.

Daryl Herbert said...

Let's see, johnf says leaving value judgments/position statements out of a discussion helps it to be more rational.

seven machos doesn't like johnf's point, so he makes a conclusory value judgment...

Done properly, leaving the value judgments out would neutralize political correctness. It would stop the Easily Offended Victim Classes from making conclusory value judgments about how offended they are.

Old Dad said...

I think the argument points to the fundamental and healthy tension created by the dual tasks of teaching and research--especailly applied research. Proper balance creates great universities.

DNR Mom said...

I prefer a simpler definition of how to share the Wisconsin Idea: The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.

I believe this comes from the late author and UW prof Robert Gard, whose work included much delight in Wisconsin, both the state and university.

Kirby Olson said...

It can be practical to show students the virtues of a certain kind of distancing in thought. That is, to stand back and carefully analyze, rather than to just start screaming your opinion.

They get many examples of screaming your opinion on talk radio, and in the activist classes in college.

What Fish recommends makes sense: leave the conclusion open, and keep the mind open, as you carefully evaluate alternatives.

This country could use a few good professors who are capable of demonstrating the ability to stand back a bit. Most young people have never seen it in their lives -- but it's a practical skill.

It can help in every sphere from the love life to the career to even choosing where to be buried.

Ecce Libanus said...

might you email that Fish article (oldlevantine@yahoo.com)? I get nytimes delivery 7-days a week, and it sucks to have to pay again to read Fish. Is it worth it?

Also, unrelated but relevant topic, there was this from this past summer's MEQ regarding Middle East Studies at the American academy.

http://www.meforum.org/article/986

Lebanese W Bass said...

Here it is. Nothing worth writing home about, let alone making us pay to read it.

October 22, 2006, 10:39 pm
Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job
In my previous post I asserted that when protesters prevented a speaker at Columbia University from giving his talk, no issues of freedom of expression or democratic civility or any other high-sounding abstraction were raised. The event, I said, was not an academic one even though it took place – or didn't quite take place – in an academic setting. Rather, it was a piece of theater with all parties playing their roles according to the script. The speaker brought a message he (and the organizers) knew the audience would resist. Audience members responded (as expected) by engaging in a loud and unruly protest. Counter-protestors answered in kind, and in the aftermath each side was able to accuse the other of being intolerant, fascistic, close-minded and un-American. The only unscripted thing that happened – or at least I think it was unscripted – is that the proceedings were shut down prematurely, and that was the result not of a moral or philosophical failure but of a failure – purely administrative in nature – to exercise effective crowd control.

I made the further point that this is what extracurricular means – outside the curriculum, and therefore not subject to the imperatives usually thought to be in force in the classroom. What I want to say today is that classroom imperatives are not moral or philosophical either. While phrases like freedom of speech and academic freedom are routinely invoked whenever there is a discussion of how professors should conduct themselves, classroom performance has nothing to do with such grand abstractions and everything to do with a simple injunction: do your job.

Of course, before you can do your job, you have to know what it is. And you will not be helped by your college's mission statement, which will lead you to think that your job is to cure every ill the world has ever known – not only illiteracy, bad writing and cultural ignorance, which are at least in the ballpark, but poverty, racism, ageism, sexism, war, exploitation, colonialism, discrimination, intolerance, pollution and bad character. (The list could be much longer.) I call this the save-the-world theory of academic performance and you can see it on display in a recent book by Derek Bok, the former and now once-again president of Harvard. Bok's book is titled "Our Underachieving Colleges," and here are some of the things he thinks colleges should be trying to achieve: "[H]elp develop such virtues as racial tolerance, honesty and social responsibility"; "prepare … students to be active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy"; and "nurture such behavioral traits as good moral character."

I can't speak for every college teacher, but I'm neither trained nor paid to do any of those things, although I am aware of people who are: ministers, therapists, social workers, political activists, gurus, inspirational speakers and diversity consultants. I am trained and paid to do two things (although, needless to say, I don't always succeed in my attempts to do them): 1) to introduce students to materials they didn't know a whole lot about, and 2) to equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so, after the semester is over. That's it. That's the job. There's nothing more, and the moment an instructor tries to do something more – tries to do some of the things urged by Derek Bok or tries to redress the injustices of the world – he or she will have crossed a line and will be practicing without a license. In response to this trespass someone will protest the politicization of the classroom, after which a debate will break out about the scope and limits of academic freedom, with all parties hurling pieties at one another and claiming to be the only defenders of academic integrity.

But the whole dreary sequence can be avoided if everyone lets go of outsized ambitions and pledges to just teach the materials and confer the skills, for then no one will be tempted to take on the job of moralist or reformer or political agent, and there will be no more outcries about professors who overstep their bounds. The New York Post would have nothing to write about, and organizations like Campus Watch could just disband.

There is an obvious objection to what I have just said. Any course of instruction, especially in the social sciences and humanities, will touch on deep moral and political issues. The materials students are asked to read will be fraught with them. Wouldn't it be impossible to avoid discussing these issues without trivializing and impoverishing the classroom experience? No, it's easy. You don't have to ignore or ban moral and political questions. What you have to do is regard them as objects of study rather than as alternatives you and your students might take a stand on.

That is, instead of asking questions like "What should be done?" or "Who is in the right?" you ask, "What are the origins of this controversy?" or "What relationship does it have to controversies taking place in other areas of inquiry?" or "What is the structure of argument on both sides?" I have coined an ugly word for this way of turning politically charged matters into the stuff of academic investigation. The word is academicize. To academicize a topic is to detach it from the context of its real-world urgency, where there is a decision to be made, and re-insert it into a context of an academic urgency, where there is an analysis to be performed.

Take, for example, the Terry Schiavo tragedy. There was hardly anyone in the country who didn't have an opinion about what should be done and who should do it. How might one go about academicizing something so freighted with moral, political and theological implications? In my classroom I discuss the Terry Schiavo case as a contemporary example of a tension that has structured American political thought from the founding to this day; the tension between substantive justice – justice done in response to some vision of right and wrong – and procedural justice – justice derived from formal rules laying out the steps to be taken and specifying the people authorized to take them. On the one side were those who asked, "What is the moral thing to do here?" and on the other, those who asked, "Who is legally entitled to make the relevant decisions, irrespective of whether we find those decisions morally satisfying."

After having identified these two ways of looking at the matter, I trace their sources in the work of political philosophers from John Locke to John Rawls. And as this line of inquiry is extended, the concern to render a moral and political judgment is replaced by the concern to fully comprehend and describe a phenomenon. The subject has been academicized.

Anything can be academicized and everything in the classroom should be, but this injunction will be resisted by those who believe that the purpose of higher education is to transform students into exemplary moral and political people (as opposed to people who simply know more). That goal is both unworkable and misguided; unworkable because it is impossible to control what students will do with the instruction they receive, and misguided because it forsakes the genuine pleasure of intellectual inquiry – the pleasure of trying to figure something out – for the hallucinogenic pleasure of trying to improve the world. Improving the world is a good thing and I would dissuade no one from the effort. Just don't do it as a substitute for what you are paid to do. Just do your job.