Response to Stanley Fish

The following is a comment I made on Stanley Fish’s recent New York Times blog posts, which can be found here and here. This won’t make much sense if you haven’t read both his posts first.

Okay, here’s my exercise, Dr. Fish: Neither this sentence nor the next one will be particularly meaningful, because they aren’t situated in any kind of context. See?

But seriously, I thank you for clarifying (or perhaps backpedaling on) your position. I agreed with one of the premises of the first post, which was that writing courses ought not be literature or cultural studies courses in disguise, with a thin veneer of writing instruction layered over the top. I, too, have seen too many courses like that, and I think it comes from the fact that many composition instructors are/were literature grad students who didn’t find jobs teaching literature, so they use comp. courses as a surrogate. I think this does a disservice to students. Actual writing instruction is a good thing.

However, I’m not sure I agree with you about what actual writing instruction involves. Your neither/nor exercise gets at style, but does little in terms of other canons of rhetoric, like invention or arrangement. Students cannot practice discovering the available means of persuasion if they don’t a) have some topic they are treating (we might call this “content”) or b) have some audience they are aiming to persuade. Learning how to write shouldn’t be disconnected from having something to say.

I teach freshman composition as a course in ethnographic writing, not because I think learning how to do fieldwork is all that important (although observing and interviewing are useful skills), but because it provides a definable context for learning how to describe and analyze cultural behaviors and artifacts. That is, it gives students a motive to write. Even a literature-based composition course could use a poem or a novel as an occasion to write. I think it is not a question of either/or — either content or form, literature (or cultural studies) or writing. Instead, it is a matter of foregrounding the appropriate activities, which in the case of a composition course would be the writing.

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