November 09, 2006
Having some fun with Stanley Fish on the NYTimes Blog
I must confess: an evil streak came over me just the other day. Maybe it was all those planets in Scorpio, Mars in Scorpio, and then Mercury rolling retrograde.
The real reason is that the New York Times left the barn door open and the cows got out.
I am vehemently boycotting all the content on TimesSelect, you see. I hate that firewall and the price, and what it does to the quality of the debate in the public commons of the Internet. I ranted on this topic a bit in a recent post on my other blog. I mean, truly, I can't live without Frank Rich, and if I could have Frank, I'd want Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert too. My life is messed up without them in it, and it is all the Times's fault.
So, the Times offered me a free week to play in the TimesSelect playground, that walled garden that I find to be a purely evil place where Rich and Herbert and Krugman are being held prisoner, and there's no one to rescue them. (Thank goodness they didn't trap David Pogue, or I might have to storm the castle!)
I knew I should never have entered the rich kids' private playground, but I couldn't resist. And wouldn't you know it, they're keeping Stanley Fish in there too! You know, the noted academic and dean and distinguished professor? His provocative writings have shaped a great deal of recent theory in academia. He's associated with reader-response theories, interpretive communities, and anti-foundationalism.
Which is why, in private company, over a few beers, I like to pick on him. That's a safe thing to do, usually. Anti-foundationalism is such an easy target, sort of like the Star Trek time-travel paradoxes. Just a few quick moves, and everyone is all tied in knots.
Turns out there are some other academics, or former academics, or academic defenders, playing in TimesSelect too, either because they got a free week like I did, or maybe they like that elitist feeling of being a paid subscriber to TimesSelect. Pooh on that. E-vile, I'm telling you. TimesSelect is a sign of the apocalypse!
So it doesn't do me much good to quote too much of Stanley Fish's blog post, "Always Academicize," spinning off Frederick Jameson's "Always Historicize" maxim of a number of years ago. There's really no comparison between the two, because Jameson was making an academic argument, and Fish is just throwing out a quick hit blog post to the pseudo-masses behind the TimesSelect firewall.
He's also jumping off another post he did on a related topic in October, which I guess generated a bunch of sound and fury from pointy-headed people in the comments area as well. I wouldn't know about that, because technically, TimesSelect wasn't free to me at the time he wrote that piece, so I shouldn't be responsible for taking those argument threads into full consideration anyway, right?
Right now there are 104 comments on this Stanley Fish post. My anonymous comment is #39. I posted semi-anonymously because grad school conditioned me well. I figured I'd come off as a Fish dilettante, and some real Fish scholar would show up and wipe the floor with me.
Looks like some of them showed up and half-way liked what I had to say, tho. I had too much fun writing it to let the little piece rot in some secret TimeSelect walled garden blog comments field, so I've got a wild hair to share it, along with a few of the other commenters I admire. I also save it here for no other reason than because I don't know when my free week runs out, and I won't be able to access my own writing. Oh dear.
It raises some fun issues to think about, even if there is no way I can take Fish's thesis in the main blog text seriously, ever. It's just absurd, on the face of it. But that's OK, because there isn't a text in this class.
I'll just quote a bit of it here, to give you the gist, and then put my rant down below. I mean, how often do you get to do an academic-style flame on Stanley Fish, you know? It was just too much fun, and maybe I didn't embarrass myself after all.
Ah hell, I probably did.
November 5, 2006, 10:00 pm
By Stanley Fish
In my post of October 22, I argued that college and university teachers should not take it upon themselves to cure the ills of the world, but should instead do the job they are trained and paid to do — the job, first, of introducing students to areas of knowledge they were not acquainted with before, and second, of equipping those same students with the analytic skills that will enable them to assess and evaluate the materials they are asked to read. I made the further point that the moment an instructor tries to do something more, he or she has crossed a line and ventured into territory that belongs properly to some other enterprise. It doesn’t matter whether the line is crossed by someone on the left who wants to enroll students in a progressive agenda dedicated to the redress of injustice, or by someone on the right who is concerned that students be taught to be patriotic, God-fearing, family oriented, and respectful of tradition. To be sure, the redress of injustice and the inculcation of patriotic and family values are worthy activities, but they are not academic activities, and they are not activities academics have the credentials to perform. Academics are not legislators, or political leaders or therapists or ministers; they are academics, and as academics they have contracted to do only one thing – to discuss whatever subject is introduced into the classroom in academic terms.
And what are academic terms? The list is long and includes looking into a history of a topic, studying and mastering the technical language that comes along with it, examining the controversies that have grown up around it and surveying the most significant contributions to its development. The list of academic terms would, however, not include coming to a resolution about a political or moral issue raised by the materials under discussion. This does not mean that political and moral questions are banned from the classroom, but that they should be regarded as objects of study – Where did they come from? How have they been answered at different times in different cultures? – rather than as invitations to take a vote (that’s what you do at the ballot box) or make a life decision (that’s what you do in the private recesses of your heart). No subject is out of bounds; what is out of bounds is using it as an occasion to move students in some political or ideological direction. The imperative, as I said in the earlier post, is to “academicize” the subject; that is, to remove it from whatever context of urgency it inhabits in the world and insert it into a context of academic urgency where the question being asked is not “What is the right thing to do?” but “Is this account of the matter attentive to the complexity of the issue?” [emphasis mine...cb]
Those who commented on the post raised many sharp and helpful objections to it. Some of those objections give me the opportunity to make my point again. I happily plead guilty to not asking the question Dr. James Cook would have me (and all teachers) ask when a “social/political” issue comes up in the classroom: “Does silence contribute to the victory of people who espouse values akin to those of Hitler?” The question confuses and conflates political silence – you decide not to speak up as a citizen against what you consider an outrage – with an academic silence that is neither culpable nor praiseworthy because it goes without saying if you understand the nature of academic work. When, as a teacher, you are silent about your ethical and political commitments, you are not making a positive choice – Should I or shouldn’t I? is not an academic question — but simply performing your pedagogical role.
In fact, my stance is aggressively ethical: it demands that we take the ethics of the classroom – everything that belongs to pedagogy including preparation, giving assignments, grading papers, keeping discussions on point, etc.– seriously and not allow the scene of instruction to become a scene of indoctrination. Were the ethics appropriate to the classroom no different from the ethics appropriate to the arena of political action or the ethics of democratic citizenry, there would be nothing distinctive about the academic experience – it would be politics by another name – and no reason for anyone to support the enterprise. For if its politics you want, you might as well get right to it and skip the entire academic apparatus entirely.
My argument, then, rests on the conviction that academic work is unlike other forms of work — if it isn’t, it has no shape of its own and no claim on our attention — and that fidelity to it demands respect for its difference, a difference defined by its removal from the decision-making pressures of the larger world. And that finally may be the point underlying the objections to my position: in a world so beset with problems, some of my critics seem to be asking, is it either possible or desirable to remain aloof from the fray? Thus Fred Moramarco declares, “It’s clearly not easy to ‘just do your job’ where genocide, aggression, moral superiority, and hatred of opposing views are ordinary, everyday occurrences.”
Of course, there will also be excitement in your class if you give it over to a discussion of what your students think about this or that hot-button issue. Lots of people will talk, and the talk will be heated, and everyone will go away feeling satisfied. But the satisfaction will be temporary as will its effects, for the long-lasting pleasure of learning something will have been sacrificed to the ephemeral pleasure of exchanging uninformed opinions. You can glorify that exercise in self-indulgence by calling it interactive learning or engaged learning or ethical learning, but in the end it will be nothing more than a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And here is my response to Dr Fish:
(I call him Mr. Fish in my post because that was NYTimes style, or appeared so. Later I realized I was speaking in affected Times Stylebook style, and he should have been Dr. My apologies, Dr. Fish.)
And here are a few pithy and valuable bits that were also posted by other commenters, which will soon be lost to posterity forever so long as TimesSelect is restricted access.
You know, as I go through and re-read these (and you will see a theme emerging, as I picked along my favorite angle), I was just struck by how many smart people are out there running around, thinking wonderful thoughts, and expressing them with eloquence and creativity, with no apparent reward or reason, just for the joy of doing it (I am struck too by De Certeau's "la perrique," "the wig," which I've written of before).
But most importantly, what I see in the comments below, what stirs me about the comments below to the point that I want to SAVE these words, these thoughts, this dialogue, is that they are thrashing around with an idea that is about as close to first principles (or foundations) as things get for committed teachers and scholars, people who are driven to do this work for reasons other than professional and career advancement. People who are passionately "other-directed" and can't live in a world where these humanistic (and to some extent Enlightenment) values cut through artificial surfaces and spin, through disciplinary boundaries and institutionalized social constructs, not because there's a capital "T" Truth we're seeking, but precisely because there isn't, and it's still a Grail Quest anyway.
Most of the commenters below are so riled up (like myself as well) because they're really close to where Dr. Fish is coming from, but his conclusions seem so utterly wrong for our common starting point that it appears he is deliberately ignoring the fact that he's doing the very thing he's condemning, out of a lack of self-reflexivity. It feels almost maddening.
But the comments below say it far better than I could. I'll put my favorite bits in bold. More than anything, I love the passion with which they speak. We're drinking this Kool-Aid together, we all are. Kumbayah.
November 9, 2006 in Academia, Art, Books, Feminisms, Fiction, Games, Literacies, Postmodernity, Public Intellectuals, Research Access, Science, Service Learning, Stories of Favorite Teachers, Teaching, Voice | Permalink
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