Profession 2009 includes, among other things, a cluster of essays from a panel devoted to Stanley Fish's Saving the World on Your Own Time, complete with Fish's rebuttal.1 Not surprisingly, the essays focus on the possibility of a classroom free from political advocacy--the possibility, that is, of "maintain[ing] an analytic distance from the materials you are studying," as Fish puts it (103). Fish insists that this process is, in fact, "entirely possible" (103) for anyone who puts his or her mind to it. The panel was not quite so sure.
Of Fish's four interlocutors, only Andrew Hoberek comes across as particularly sympathetic: noting that his "own experience as a college English teacher since the mid-nineties has been that students are bored by easy political readings but perk up when they think they're actually learning something about how fiction, poetry, or some other genre works," Hoberek suggests that students are most engaged by "techniques for doing something with something" (82). By contrast, Jonathan Culler argues, contra Fish, that "in education all effects are contingent" (i.e., students may well not learn the instructor's political ideals--but, then again, they may not learn the difference between an iamb and a trochee, either), so that "[i]t is also possible that if we think that the values we would like to spread are based on a just assessment of the past and present, they will be more effectively transmitted if we present the evidence, shape the questions, and allow the students to reach their own conclusions" (87). By and large, however, Culler interprets Fish as a bit of a ham, a "provocateur" (87), whose pedagogy is exemplary for...nobody, really. (Which makes Fish excessive, but also completely marginal.) More bluntly, Judith Butler and Patricia Bizzell both insist that Fish's model is either impossible or undesirable. According to Butler, Fish offers an "overconfident distinction between the form of such arguments [about "justice and equality"] and their content" (91): analyzing the form and history of an argument is all very well, she says, but "what would it mean to say that under no conditions should we ask students to have and debate a point of view on what a just society is and to give reasons that support that point of view?" (92) Similarly, Bizzell argues in favor of incorporating contemporary social issues into the rhet-comp classroom. On the one hand, by recognizing that "[o]ur increasingly diverse student populations brought valuable discursive resources to the academy from their home communities," we have "enable[d] the academy to do intellectual work that could not be done with only traditional discursive resources" (95). On the other, Bizzell argues that since we can never achieve "purity," she "may inevitably" bring her political positions into the classroom (98). We have at least three votes against Fish, whether because of eccentricity or sheer improbability.
Fish proceeds to whack everyone around like shuttlecocks:
- Bizzell's model, he argues, does little to help students "understan[d] what sentences are and how they work"; the right way to go about teaching students the nature of sentences, then, is to open with "questions and problems that trade on no particular socioeconomic presuppositions," which will take care of any "'differentials'" that might arise (100). Moreover, Fish denies any relationship between identity and scholarship. Citing himself as an example--a Jew who specializes in "nondramatic Christian poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries"--he notes that "achieving that expertise was my job; being or becoming a Christian wasn't" (101). As for values, "not all the values I hold are relevant to every situation I find myself in" (101).
- As for Culler, Fish notes that while you may well bore your listeners out of their minds, they still might learn something, whereas "you have no chance at all (I contend) of turning students into admirable persons or workers for justice" (102).
- This gets Fish to Butler, of whom he is most dismissive. In a "course on ethics," the instructor and students are "studying ideas about ethical behavior, not modeling it" (102); by the same token, Butler's belief that you cannot take a position in a philosophy course only stands, Fish argues, "if you believe that it is either impossible or unworthy to maintain an analytic distance from the materials you are studying" (103).
What interests me about this debate are the shared assumptions about pedagogy and classroom performance.
Both sides assume that their approaches are pedagogically effective, whether by "effective" we mean that students learn critical thinking, sentence structure, grammar, argumentation, or something else entirely. It's not clear to me, however, that either side actually knows this. Fish, for example, doesn't demonstrate that students come out of his classroom knowing how to write sentences, as opposed to understand how sentences work; the two things are not, in fact, the same. By the same token, Bizzell's arguments for the success of her culturally- and politically-engaged method don't actually point to anything that might demonstrate it, other than new approaches to professional scholarship. (Which is hardly the same thing as student success.) Because writing instruction requires frequent reinforcement in every course at every level, not just in a course cordoned off as "the writing class," it may be the case that we can't really demonstrate over the long term that one pedagogical approach in one course does much of anything for the student. (I've seen outcomes assessed for a single course, outcomes assessed within a major, and outcomes assessed for entire student bodies, but to test a particular pedagogical approach in a particular skills-based course, wouldn't you need to follow one instructor's students across the entirety of their academic careers? Or, rather, multiple instructors using the same approach, to control for different levels of teaching ability. And even then, it seems to me, there would be formidable variables--not least of them, demands that students "unlearn" what they learned in comp. Feel free to correct me.)
I'm also fascinated, though, by the extent to which these arguments presume self-consciousness during the act of teaching. Fish takes by far the most extreme position: he seems absolutely certain about what he is and is not doing in the classroom. "If you start" with this, then that "will" happen (100); we have "no chance" (102) of doing this other thing; "I don't" do this, as opposed to that (102); "I have done it for years" (103); and so forth. Bizzell and Culler both acknowledge the role of "contingency," in different ways, but still argue that it is possible to do intentionally what one might otherwise do accidentally. Butler doesn't directly address the issue at all, but describes the aims of engaged teaching as something relatively straightforward: "There is a substantial difference between saying that a point of view ought not to be imposed and saying that there ought to be no points of view or that pedagogy is not centrally engaged with the question of formulating points of view" (93). In other words, the instructor should be able to know when they're practicing these projects or positions (imposition/absolute withdrawal/teaching how to have a POV). By contrast, Hoberek notes that he arrived at his own position "almost by accident" (82).
As it happens, I'm deeply skeptical about Fish's belief that he knows what he's doing. Most faculty will be familiar with the "I said one thing, the students heard another" phenomenon; there's also its equivalent, "I thought the class was great, they hated it/I hated this course, they loved it." Such disconnects extend to self-presentation (I've been told repeatedly that I'm intimidating, which is not exactly how I see myself) and other personality quirks. Nor, often enough, do we recognize our own flaws, or what about our teaching style annoys our students. And, I suspect, we often don't know what we're doing when it comes to "engaged" or "disengaged" instruction. Thinking back to my undergraduate days, I suspect that what I and my fellow undergrads "learned" from the politically-engaged instructors was not what they intended--or wanted--to teach. By the same token, though, I suspect many "apolitical" faculty, myself included, give away more than they realize. Fish may well be keeping his "values" out of the classroom, but perhaps his students have a very different POV?
1 Andrew Hoberek, "'We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means': On Fish and Humanist Method," Profession (2009): 75-83; Jonathan Culler, "Writing to Provoke," 84-88; Judith Butler, "Which Politics?" 89-93; Patricia Bizzell, "Composition Studies Saves the World!" 94-98; Stanley Fish, "Response," 99-104.