May 31, 2005

"We are not interested in ideas."

Stanley Fish designs a writing class that banishes ideas, opinion, content. Why would you want to do that?
"We don't do content in this class. By that I mean - yours, mine or anyone else's. We don't have an anthology of readings. We don't discuss current events. We don't exchange views on hot-button issues. We don't tell each other what we think about anything - except about how prepositions or participles or relative pronouns function." The reason we don't do any of these things is that once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content, usually some recycled set of pros and cons about abortion, assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare reform, the death penalty, free speech and so forth. At that moment, the task of understanding and mastering linguistic forms will have been replaced by the dubious pleasure of reproducing the well-worn and terminally dull arguments one hears or sees on every radio and TV talk show.

As a teacher of Constitution Law, I'm quite interested in this. I want to teach the students the methods of interpretation, and the hot topics seem to spice things up. (Right now I'm grading the exam that I designed to test the students' interpretive skills, but I made the topic the death penalty.) But perhaps these lively topics are a distraction and a limitation.

I'm sure Fish knows that, years ago, there was an artificial language section on the Law School Admission Test. When I first considered applying to law school, I did some of the practice exams, and I loved doing this section. By the time I finally got around to taking the LSAT, that section had been abolished, I think because somebody decided it was too threatening, perhaps in some unfair way.

Hmmm... I wonder if statistics showed men doing much better than women on this test. Go back to John Tierney's column, the one I railed about in the previous post. His example is Scrabble, a game men excel at in competition -- it seems -- because they take to memorizing strings of letters and play in a manner that disconnects from the meaning of words.


leeontheroad said...

ah, things are going swimmingly for Stanley still, but I think he's just phishing with this.

"Students who take so-called courses in writing where such topics are the staples of discussion may believe, as their instructors surely do, that they are learning how to marshal arguments in ways that will improve their compositional skills. In fact, they will be learning nothing they couldn't have learned better by sitting around in a dorm room or a coffee shop."

I beg to differ. Quite a number would just ingest transfats at the donut shop and, in the dorms, download music, watch DVD's and/or enagage in unsafe sex. Still, his point is well taken.

Some if not many entering students do have difficulty, in my experience, separating their received belief from an argument that engages with the langauge of the text. Too often, the poorest writers will rail against something an author says that truly has nothing to do with the question in the assignment.

For example, in a selection from James Baldwin, students are asked to discuss what Baldwin means when he says individuals should "renew themsevles at the fountain of their own experience." Baldwin does contrast this "renewal" with organized religion, and it tends to be the case that 1 or 2 undergrads will turn in a passionate exposition listing the reasons Baldwin should return to the church of his youth.

Having said that, I also have trouble imaging any number of students transferring their Fish-taught ciphering skills to the business of composing an argumentative essay for a content course.

And it does remain the case that one reason the courses tend to be called "Frosh Comp" or simialr is that they're pre-requisites for seminars, which are, as they should be, heavy content courses.

Greg Brown said...

I guess Fish is just following the modern trend toward content-less undergraduate classes in academia. The educational establishment has gotten quite skilled in kicking the can (of actual learning something useful) down the road. You have to admire Fish's transparent desire to move it into post-grad curricula. I'm sure Prof. Althouse and her peers appreciate the thought.


who, me? said...

I think he's on to something, particularly in light of the rhetorical train-wreck in public and schoolroom discourse. And grammar diagrams? Fuhgeddaboudit. Teaching freshman composition, I regarded content as the mere vehicle for learning the rules of the road in driving the language.

In a PC environment, it seems near-impossible for someone in the minority to point out a logical fallacy without the conversation going into an illogical ad hominem ditch.

It may also reflect student-faculty sensitivities about browbeating, ideologizing in the classroom, etc.

And yes, I think it is slightly tilted for the "masculine" mind to think in vectors and structures, the "feminine" to think in content and features. Wasn't there a map-reading studies where the men favored directions and vectors, the women landmarks to navigate?

who, me? said...

speaking of grammar...I meant "a map-reading study..."