September 1, 2009

"So Mr. Fish, how about teaching some comp classes yourself?"

Stanley Fish kicks that critic's ass.

24 comments:

1990bluejay said...

Indeed. He has simply brought to a fore a long simmering conflict seen in English departments across the country and challenges the assumption that those of us in other parts of academia make in regards to the "research and writing" requirement that students have - that they are being taught to write and get some grammar. I think the grammar comes from those 100 level foreign language courses...

John Burgess said...

A very lovely putdown and corrective!

Henry said...

This is a damning aside: At Duke writing instruction was not housed in the English department...

Big Mike said...

I just hope the idea of ignoring the constraints never gets to the College of Engineering on any campus. It seems to me that writing without a grasp of the rules of grammar would be a like a civil engineer trying to build a bridge without understanding the laws of physics.

Maybe that's what caused the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse??? Aesthetics over physics certainly contributed to the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis.

Salamandyr said...

This is a much better essay, as he didn't spend half of his page protesting being in the same ideological space as those nasty conservatives.

His last piece consistently undermined himself by his professions of distaste for his fellow travelers.

traditionalguy said...

Concision on one topic at a time. Got it. He will make few friends by working his students instead of entertaining them.

Dr. Cookie said...

I love this response, and his original post.

John Lynch said...

I think he just misses a really good point.

It's not that forms are grammar are boring for students, it's that it's boring for professors.

A lot of professors don't teach grammar because they think the public schools should do it, and it's stupid for someone with a doctorate to be doing the equivalent of wiping noses. Comp courses tend to be hazing for the new people because no one wants to do it.

For academics, who write constantly, it must be very frustrating. They want to teach people like them, not the huddled masses who will never need to write well. There's a prevalent belief that people either have writing talent or don't.

That effectively drops a huge concrete barrier in front of most students. Grammar is not a talent. One can write correct but boring sentences. It's a skill. It's taught. It is true that most people aren't going to have the talent to make a living writing, but most writing is not professional. Poor writing skills can frustrate a lot of otherwise intelligent people.

Leaving it out of the curriculum leaves it to be self-taught, which means that students from upper middle class backgrounds will dominate. Those are the students with educated parents who push reading from an early age.

Since writing ability is often taken as a sign of intelligence, we do no one any favors by failing to teach grammar. Being able to put sentences together correctly is a sign of class in this country. If you can't, you are taken to be stupid and low class. It seems to me that good grammar is a tool of social mobility. This seems to be the case in almost any society, not just 21st century America.

Professors who specialize in teaching basic language skills are doing far more for their students than they get credit for. It's odd that most English departments, with their famously leftish slant, are so snobbish.

Synova said...

"...I have found that students very quickly become involved in the extraordinary power and generativity of ordinary forms;"

I appreciated this remark.

Clarity is one thing, power is another.

And clarity is good. Certainly the desire to get ideas across, the "content" that Fish talks about and some of his detractors said was necessary above and beyond form, motivates students to learn how grammar serves that end.

But power is something else and, on reflection, is why I thought composition should be taught at two points... to Freshmen and to Juniors. And that fits very well. For Freshmen teach clarity; for Juniors, power.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

A lot of professors don't teach grammar because they think the public schools should do it, and it's stupid for someone with a doctorate to be doing the equivalent of wiping noses. Comp courses tend to be hazing for the new people because no one wants to do it.

Well boo hoo. God knows the rest of us never have to do anything we don't want to or don't think we should have to. To quote my husband, that's why they call it "work". If they called it "fun" nobody would pay you to do it.

John Thacker said...

At Duke writing instruction was not housed in the English department...

Duke has a mandatory writing course for all freshmen; however, it's not technically housed in the English Department but rather by a semi-department that does only the writing course. I've heard conflicting explanations of how much power Stanley Fish had over it when he was English Chair, though he's obviously denying it here.

former law student said...

A century ago, eighth-graders had mastered the forms of which Mr. Fish speaks. Surely some college freshmen possess equivalent writing skill. Let the students be tested, and placed in appropriate classes according to their ability.

One problem with teaching writing per se is that few colleges respect it. Composition instructors are much less likely to get tenure than literature teachers are, even if they publish in their fields. Similarly, legal writing instructors are ghettoized in law schools.

paul a'barge said...

Well then. That ought to sting a bit.

Really, didn't that remind you of the logic-whipping administered by Ms McCardle to that Goldberg moron recently?

You really have to wonder at the ability of these people to deny the fact that their mental innards are now flowing on to the ground around their feet.

traditionalguy said...

John Lynch...Thanks for that excellent comment. Is your real name Henry Higgins, by chance?

rhhardin said...

Fish himself follows the pompous asshole form.

If you're any good, the reader will find it out by himself, would be my advice on dealing with criticism.

Separately, I begin by producing a simple neither/nor sentence. “Neither his age nor his disability prevented him from competing.” does produce a boring PC hum of its own.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Separately, I begin by producing a simple neither/nor sentence. “Neither his age nor his disability prevented him from competing.” does produce a boring PC hum of its own.

It does, doesn't it?

I am reminded of some math course I took in college, in which we redid high school geometry with nonsense words: "any two abbas determine a dabba" for instance. The point was to get us away from visualizing points and lines and use pure logic as much as possible. So if a teacher truly wanted to get away from content and teach pure writing, he'd introduce neither/nor like this: "Neither the frak's frock nor the frak's trock prevented the frak from frooking." Or something like that. Still getting the sentence structure, which is the actual subject matter across.

dick said...

My university gave 2 grades in every course, one for the course itself and one for the ability to write (satisfactory or unsatisfactory). If you got 2 unsatisfactories in one semester you were signed up for a remedial English course where they started with grammar and sentence construction and proceeded to composition. To graduate you had to pass that remedial course once you were entered into it. Made a great deal of sense to me. My roommate learned all the things he should have in high school there and ended up writing very well. That was 50 years ago so I don't know if they still do that but it made a great deal of sense to me at the time.

jaed said...

I'm still trying to figure out why universities should be requiring remedial classes of all students. A student who is ready for college work almost by definition can write an essay, no? (Not necessarily a community college student, but someone at Duke or Columbia has surely written essays.)

The average "rhet/comp" class teaches things that high-school students are supposed to know. I can see providing the instruction for those who missed it or need additional work, but making it a requirement doesn't make sense to me.

(This is what messed me up about the original Fish piece and the white paper it was referring to: these people are talking about high-school algebra and cookbook calculus and "how to write a coherent essay" and the rudiments of English grammar as not only appropriate material for higher education, but as classes that ought to be required. When are you supposed to do the higher education part? In the interstices between "five-paragraph essay format" and "how to solve an equation in two unknowns"?)

Synova said...

Well... maybe you're supposed to not let the college kids into college if they can't write?

I disagree, however, that various basic things shouldn't be taught in college. I also disagree that what we see as "basic" composition actually is basic.

What Mr. Fish seems to be talking about is the study of language itself at a level not only appropriate for Freshmen who didn't pay attention in high school but appropriate for advanced and graduate students or even his colleagues.

I write fiction and if it were just a matter of learning to construct a basic, grammatical sentence, I'd have been there long ago. I'd make no mistakes. The problem is that those forms are inadequate for what I need to do and what I need to say.

There is more to it, and more to learn. Always.

It's not a matter of having paid attention in high school or not.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Synova, but then you have people who cannot string together a coherent sentence. I can't tell you how many college graduates I've worked with who can't write a decent sentence.

When I see procedures with sentences like this: "The beaker has to be clean rinse it with solvent before use." I want to scream.

traditionalguy said...

In Georgia the Hope Scholarship is available to B students and above who graduate from a Ga HS. The transfers of families here in the last 2 years befor graduation from HS is raising the population here. Also we have adjunct campuses opening in Ga for colleges from Michigan, NY. California, etc.. The golden flow also has caused HS teachers to give a B grade to any of their students that can fog a mirror, knowing that they are not qualified for college, but not being willing to disappoint them about the golden college ticket. The colleges have reacted by placing these illiterates into "remedial programs" that are not paid for by the Hope Scholarship. The end result is 30% drop out rate by the end of the first year, But they do enjoy the extra year of living off the system while seldom attending college classes. So be sure to buy some Georgia lottery tickets on the way to Florida, and help us out.

jaed said...

I'd throw the beaker at someone's head, myself. (But then I am a redhead.)

Synova, I agree insofar as you never really "finish" learning to write. And I could be that I have the wrong impression about what kinds of courses people are saying should be required. But I'm not sure a course in rhetoric and language at the level you describe is a necessity for all students either.

Cheryl said...

That was a beautiful thing. Thanks for the link!

Mark Pennington said...

Would you rather be taught how to properly cross a busy street or left to find out on your own through trial and error?

We teach content, but we also teach students. It's our job to teach if students need instruction in syntax, usage, diction, etc.

I've just completed an article citing 21 assumptions that most of us make with respect to teaching grammar and then I follow with 4 simple steps that ensure you are teaching a balanced and effective grammar program. I would love to read your readers' reactions. Find the article at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-teach-grammar/.