Another Response to Stanley Fish

Fish is at it again, in a third installment of his “What Colleges Should Teach” series. And here is another response:

Once again, Dr. Fish, you ignore the fact that writing — real writing — is always writing *for* and writing *about*. I agreed with your first post’s implication that college writing courses often focus too much on “content”, in the form of literature, or cultural studies, or whatever. I also agree that there were certain excesses associated with the whole “Students’ Rights to Their Own Language” thing, although I would point out that learning a “new language” isn’t a value-neutral exercise. Teaching students to write academically changes them in profound ways.

But I have trouble believing that what you describe here is actually all you do in your writing courses, nor do I believe that if that’s the case, your students are learning anything worthwhile. You have described a setting in which students have no motivation to write, no content to wrestle with, and no audience to persuade or enlighten. You seem to assume that students must first work on *how* to write something, before they can move on to the *what* and *why*. In other words, you have reduced the entire rhetorical situation to stylistic exercises.

I suspect that much of your posturing here is the result of a self-manufactured literacy crisis. That is, I think you have become appalled by what you consider to be student writing that lacks the stylistic niceties you associate with good prose, and you’ve decided that it’s the job of college writing courses to fix the problem. I’m sorry that I can’t oblige you. I’m too busy trying to give my students reasons to write and guiding them toward more and more academic ways of framing their ideas in writing. If you’ll forgive the expression, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.


2 thoughts on “Another Response to Stanley Fish

  1. yeah–click through and read the whole post by “James Gee” that Fish links to in his article. Gee asks explicitly for Fish to define good writing–and Fish never gets there. If he wants, as you say, pretty stylistics, then I say: bah humbug. Building sentences without building persuasion or analysis is boring–as Socrates might say, it smacks of flattery and cookery (we’re reading the Phaedrus and Gorgias in class this week).

  2. What a coincidence — we’re reading Phaedrus and Gorgias next week. I’ve also asked that class to read Fish’s posts (and some responses to them), because I want to discuss where we might situate Fish in the whole Plato/sophist debate.

    I gave them the Wired write-up of Andrea Lunsford’s work two weeks ago, so hopefully we can make something out of the stark contrast.


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