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What is a Discipline? A Rebuttal to Stanley Fish

August 27, 2009

Stanley Fish begins this week’s column with a complaint that even graduate students in literature struggle these days to “write a clean English sentence.” I would concur and add that the prose of college professors — notably ‘literary theory’ — also occasionally leaves something to be desired.

Fish blames bad student writing on composition instructors who fail teach their subject, instead preferring to have students discuss “novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues – racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.” Yet certainly the emphasis in these courses on content rather than form is consistent with the training that composition instructors (usually English grad students) themselves receive. As Fish himself is surely aware, most influential schools of literary criticism – Marxism, new historicism, post-colonial theory, and so on – treat literary works more as a means to understand the politics or culture of a period than as objects for formal analysis.

Why exactly it is that composition studies, but not English departments, should be held responsible for the hordes of ill-prepared grad students who teach college composition, Fish does not say. (Didn’t he say earlier that it was his, and not somebody else’s grad students who taught composition?) What Fish does say is that subjects like literature and history allow for a more varied pedagogy than writing:

But if I have no problem with alternative ways of teaching literature or history, how can I maintain (with ACTA) that there is only one way to teach writing? Easy. It can’t be an alternative way of teaching writing to teach something else (like multiculturalism or social justice). It can, however, be an alternative way of teaching history to forgo a broad chronological narrative and confine yourself to a single period or even to a single world-changing event. It is the difference between not doing the job and getting the job done by another route.

Unlike history, English departments have not decided merely to “get the job done by another route” in the past thirty years. The shift has, rather, been toward multiculturalism or social justice (among other things) – or what Fish would describe as “teach[ing] something else.” In short, if composition studies has dropped the ball in training writing instructors, so has its literary studies, a point that Fish conveniently ignores.

Now, to be fair, anyone who has read Fish knows that he has stridently criticized English departments for politicizing the classroom. Still, Fish’s critique of composition studies is such that, if applied to literary studies, it would mean a return to formalist and new critical modes of analysis, which I’m guessing he doesn’t want. If Fish wishes English departments to adhere to a rigid disciplinarity, then surely deconstruction has no more place in the curriculum than the politically motivated Marxism and post-colonial theory. Deconstruction is, after all, the brainchild of a philosopher (Jacques Derrida) and not a literary critic. What right, we might ask Fish, has an English professor to teach philosophy, which is, after all, somebody else’s subject?

Also, by opining that composition instructors should teach “grammar and rhetoric and nothing else,” Fish opens the door for just the kind of discussions he wishes to discourage. For what is writing a five page opinion paper on abortion rights if not an exercise in rhetoric? If Fish wishes to limit rhetoric to the study of rhetorical structures – the Aristotelian ethos, pathos, and logos for example – he ought to explain why. As it is, Fish simply assumes that the core of a discipline is its form, rather than its content. (The reason for assuming so is, I think, clear enough: as scholars within literary studies and composition studies have often discovered, the content of a poem or an advertisement defies neat categorization.)

Finally, Fish nowhere considers the possibility that teaching novels, movies, and hot-button issues might inspire better student writing than the study of form alone. I have worked with many ESL students over the years, and most of them would agree that learning grammar is one thing, and writing well quite another.

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