Theory Teacher's Blog

Back to School… with Stanley Fish?

It’s that time of the year. Students have just arrived back on campus or finished their first week of classes; professors have attended faculty meetings and finished making their syllabi… and… out from their swampy lairs in the mainstream media, pundits have surfaced to perform that August ritual of “informing” the public about how foolish and misguided academics are. So, since the question of “how to do research” and “how to teach” are naturally on my mind at this particular moment, I thought I’d respond — angrily respond — to two recent articles, one about the “diminishing returns” of scholarly research by Mark Bauerlein [here] in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the other about the paucity of quality writing instruction by Stanley Fish [here] in the NY Times.

Bauerlein starts with a few facts about the state of academia which he believes (rightly, I think) indicate that the current generation of professors is expected by their institutions to publish much more than the older generation had to. Ironically, at the same time, such books and articles are less likely to actually get bought or read. He argues that publication today seems to be less about usefully explaining a literary text and more about uselessly performing some kind of academic identity.  For instance, consider that 2,406 things have been published since 1986 just about the play Hamlet alone — a statistic that causes Bauerlien to exclaim, “Whoa! Slow down! Hamlet can’t give you anything more.” His recommendations are that (1) departments should reduce the amount of publications expected for tenure and promotion, and (2) universities should subsidize and encourage research in “unsaturated areas” rather than “saturated” ones (such as Shakespeare, for instance.)

Much of my response will agree with my fellow blogger Dr. J [here], but I won’t be quite as kind and considerate as Dr. J tends to be. In my view, she rightly responds to Bauerlein by pointing out how new approaches to old texts (such as feminist, queer, and postcolonial approaches) actually do lead to rather insightful scholarship and explications of texts, and though she and I would agree with Bauerlein that a lot of that scholarship seems redundant or uninspiring, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for new and good work. For example, just this year I read an excellent article on Hamlet [here] entitled “Making ‘Young Hamlet'” that made me see the play not only in a new light, but also in a better light. This article by my friend Matthew Harkins, a relatively young scholar in the field, is just one of many examples of illuminating truth and productive insight. So, contrary to Bauerlein’s comment, Hamlet can give us more. And even more importantly, Dr. J points out that if one of our roles as an educator is to teach our students how to do original research, then we should be actively modeling that kind of critical inquiry for them instead of just throwing up our hands in despair exclaiming, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity… there is nothing new under the sun.”  

I would go a bit further than Dr. J and say that there is something fundamentally ignorant about Bauerlein’s rather pathetic lamentation. First, what Bauerlein doesn’t acknowledge is that the pressure to publish comes not from departments but from deans and university presidents, and those deans and presidents in turn are under pressure to compete with other universities for rankings in the famous (or infamous) U.S. News and World Reports survey of colleges and universities. So, the problem is obviously bigger than Bauerlein is willing to recognize, and it has more to do with the competitive nature of higher education than with any error in judgment by academics. Therefore, his recommendations are a bit obtuse. And moreover, I think he should have recognized all of this, not because this fact is somewhat obvious, but because the Modern Language Association (to which he belongs) has been discussing this very issue for the past two decades (a fact that Bauerlein neglects to mention, since he wants to pretend that his diatribe is more original than it is.)

Second, most departments have already been subsidizing research in new fields since the 1970s — fields of African American literature, multiethnic literature, cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, postcolonial theory, new media, technology, etc. In other words, to his suggestion that we should be subsidizing new areas of research, the most appropriate response is perhaps, “duh.”

Third, one of the reasons that young scholars feel compelled to publish on “saturated” subjects such as Shakespeare and the American Renaissance is because we are still expected to teach classes on those subjects. How to address the gap between the undergraduate curriculum and academic scholarship is an important and difficult question, but it is also a fairly old question, and I don’t think it is cause for alarm. As teachers, we’ve all been straddling that gap our whole professional careers. Often, we simply assume that the high-level scholarly work will trickle down to our teaching, but sometimes scholarship actually forces a useful paradigm shift in curriculum and instruction.

Lastly, Bauerlein bemoans that most scholarly monographs do not sell very many copies, but he seems to be ignorant of why academic university presses were created in the first place. They were never meant to compete in the marketplace. They never sold very many copies. In fact, the fact that some recent publications on scholarly presses have become international bestsellers is pretty amazing, because academic presses were always intended to publish the work of scholars primarily for academic libraries. The real crisis is not what Bauerlein thinks it is. The problem is not that these books aren’t selling; they were never meant to. The real problem is that university administrations are cutting back on their subsidies of their own presses, which forces these presses to either compete or go under. This is the real travesty.

Ultimately, Bauerlein’s lament is pretty standard fair for those who love to participate in one of America’s most popular pastimes — bashing academics — and so I agree with Dr. J that it’s important for our students and for the future of critical inquiry that we take such petty posturing with many grains of salt.

So much for the scholarship question. What about teaching?

In his op-ed column for the NY Times, Stanley Fish responds to a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is a somewhat bogus organization created by Lynne Cheney (Dick Cheney’s wife) and whose goal is primarily to promote conservatism in college curriculum and classrooms. Fish ultimately disagrees with most of ACTA’s arguments, but he does agree with them on two important points: (1) that the college courses should focus on their academic subjects, not on liberal political agendas, and (2) that colleges really should require a course that focuses entirely on writing skills. That’s pretty much all Fish has to say, though he takes a really long time to say it because he feels obligated to dismantle ACTA’s argument.

Although I do regularly teach one of Stanley Fish’s essays in my intro-to-theory course because my students and I appreciate his clear writing style, I have to admit that in general, a lot of Stanley Fish’s work (both his scholarly work and his journalistic work) pisses me off. Even the essay that I teach pisses me off, and the reason for my pissy-ness is that Fish claims to be a theorist, but he writes more like a lawyer trying to win a case in court. Theorists are dedicated to raising questions and revealing ambiguity, indeterminacy, and complexity; the goal of theory is to open up lines of inquiry, not to cynically oversimplify the question or snidely close off inquiry as Fish tends to do.

For instance, his rather unscholarly and questionable opening statistic (which is unverifiable since it is based on a personal observation) is the sole piece of evidence that gives his argument any rhetorical force. His point there is to demonstrate that English faculty do not genuinely value writing instruction and instead teach courses on whatever subject they happen to be interested in or on whatever liberal, politically correct feel-good agenda they prefer. Those who have been reading Fish’s work for the past decade are by now somewhat tired of this oft-repeated diatribe about “professional correctness” because Fish’s claim (as usual) sets up a straw-man which is all too easy for him to argue against, and doesn’t acknowledge a number of competing facts. One of those competing facts is that most faculty wrestle with this issue all the time, and it’s a much more complicated issue than Fish acknowledges. In order to get students excited about writing and also in order to model for them what sustained, scholarly inquiry looks like, teachers often give their writing courses themes or topics. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about writing; it means that the effective teaching of writing is difficult and complicated. It’s not as easy to separate writing instruction from thematic content, political debate, and/or ethical dilemmas as he suggests. And in fact, most people who do research on the teaching of writing believe that writing instruction works better when its purpose is felt by the students — in other words, writing instruction with theme, politics, and/or ethics is more pedagogically effective than writing instruction without those things. And everyone knows that one learns to write not just by writing, but also by reading (and the stuff we read tends to be about something.) Fish is such a giant on the academic scene that I doubt he has ever had to teach a basic writing class, so I don’t blame him for being unaware of the real thought that goes into planning one… though it doesn’t seem like he bothered to ask his junior colleagues, and I do blame him for that.

Another of those competing facts, of which Fish should be aware, is that there has been a significant rise in composition pedagogy over the past two decades, so that on the scholarly side, a lot of new and innovative research has been done, and on the administrative side, even elite universities such as Princeton are valuing basic writing classes more now than they were before. And I say that Fish “should be” aware of it, because everyone else in his field is aware of it. (Of course, readers of the NY Times generally aren’t aware of it, which is why Fish is doing his readers a disservice by deliberately misrepresenting the situation.)

All that said, I do want to give Fish some credit for his careful efforts to consider ACTA’s points. He acknowledges where he thinks they are right, refutes their errors, and exposes their hypocrisy. However, what I am curious about is why he even bothers. Does anyone take ACTA seriously? It doesn’t really represent university trustees and alumni as their name implies; their organization is spearheaded entirely by private, partisan money, not by any inclusive, democratic survey of actual trustees and alumni. In truth, they don’t “represent” anyone except for Lynne Cheney’s own radical agenda. And so, I wonder why Fish even bothers to deal with them, especially considering that several real representative organizations — e.g., the American Association of University Professors, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, not to mention the individual boards of colleges and universities and the aforementioned MLA — all do deal with all the questions Fish raises and/or do regularly assesses the performance of colleges and universities. Why doesn’t he discuss them and what they do? Why doesn’t he talk about how the real world works and instead wastes so much ink pandering to the radical agenda of a bogus organization? Well, to be fair to Fish, perhaps he does because ACTA is backed by some pretty deep pockets and because, unfortunately, a lot of the ethically limp members of our House of Representatives and our various state assemblies do pay attention to ACTA.

So in sum, what are we academics and teachers to do as we head back to school? It is a bit frustrating that such public attacks on our integrity should come from our fellow academics because their status lends their arguments some authenticity and, in my view, leads the public astray. (Like when the mainstream media finds conservative black people to slander the NAACP and lament the rise of hip hop.) Is it surprising that the one literary theorist (out of hundreds) whom the New York Times selected to publish a weekly column just happens to be the one who has spent the second half of his career making fun of his colleagues? And it’s even more frustrating when such dishonest slanders of literature departments should appear repeatedly in the main newspaper of higher education itself — a newspaper whose every issue delights in printing intellectually wimpy diatribes against the use of theory in literature departments.  Though I welcome honest critique of our practices (and such honest critiques actually do fill the pages of both scholarly and popular periodicals), the dishonesty of Bauerlein and Fish, alongside the bizarrely anti-intellectual tone of The Chronicle of Higher Ed,  feels to me more like a deliberate betrayal. Should we fight back or ignore them? Clearly, I have chosen to fight back, though I fear that at the end of the day doing so might do more harm than good.

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August 29, 2009 - Posted by | teaching

1 Comment »

  1. I love this post. Really well-organized and written. I started reading it just before bed last night, and I was like “I probably won’t get through all of it.” But it just pulled me along. Nicely done.

    One note: you seem to use the term “basic writing” to stand in for first-year writing instruction more generally. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but that’s how it reads. Basic writing is actually a term of art in composition studies that refers to (and nobody likes to call it this anymore) the remedial writing classes: think ENG4 rather than ENG15 at Former Grad School Institution. Just as a terminological correction if you’d want to submit this to CHE, which I think you should.

    Comment by topspun | September 4, 2009 | Reply


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