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Fish, barrel, content

Stanley Fish’s a column in this morning’s New York Times is Devoid of Content. No, that’s the headline. Now, it’s like shooting, um, well, look, I’m trying really hard not to be too snarky, OK?

Prof. Fish doesn’t make it easy on me. He begins by stating calling “most [new college graduates] utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence.” Here’s one: Fuck you, prof! Here’s another: Bite me! Now, it may be that Prof. Fish is simply engaging in hyperbole, rather than libel, and he simply means that, um, I don’t actually know. The percentage of college graduates who really cannot write the above clear English sentence has got to be below ten percent, even including non-traditional, distance, and incarcerated students. So most is not so much hyperbole as lying. It’s possible that he meant that most college graduates, in writing, often make errors of grammar and spelling, as well as showing a certain deficiency of style. The hyperbole then is in the description of their level of competence; since this also describes Your Humble Blogger, I’d be inclined to call that lying as well. That may just be me, but what he’s done so far is to annoy me and make me skeptical of his conclusions.

Those conclusions?

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

Now, I’m not convinced that most American students actually take composition courses, but I haven’t studied it. I’m certainly not convinced that most of the courses that students do take “emphasize content rather than form”, and of those that can be said to, I can’t imagine that anybody on the curriculum committee involved would agree that “if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.” That theory is nonsense. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that some composition courses are set up on the idea that writing should be about something, that an essay of whatever kind should have a point, and that point should be made out of some sort of knowledge. That doesn’t seem preposterous to me.

However, here we have an argument; teaching form, rather than content, leads to students who can write sentences. OK, I’m game, tell me about it. He does. Prof. Fish describes to me an introductory linguistics course, which teaches English grammar by inventing a new one, more or less on the old basis that it’s easier to learn grammar in a foreign language. I agree with that basis, having learned most of what I know about English grammar in introductory German, and the rest in paging through a Latin text. Geoffrey Pullum, over at Language Log, reports that real linguistics profs at Prof. Fish’s institution seem to think the class goes pretty well, and I for one think there’s a good argument to be made for requiring a certain amount of linguistics, at least for students of literature and languages.

In the course of this, er, course, the students seem to learn a lot about constructing a language, as well as how to make the prof happy. He describes two moments of particular pride, one when a student asks a process-oriented question revealing (I suppose) some understanding of the assignment, if not of the English language, and one when a student restricts the conversation in class to what Prof. Fish wants to hear. And, you know, I’m glad that Prof. Fish gets those happy moments; we all could use a happy moment now and then. On the other hand, Prof. Fish shows no evidence whatsoever that the students now, in their writing, regularly construct grammatically perfect and coherent English sentences. Certainly he shows no evidence that they can write good paragraphs, or essays, or descriptions, or narratives, or arguments, or anything like that, but he’s indicated he has no interest in that, so we’ll give him a pass on the thing that seem actually important to me. No, let’s concentrate on what he says is important: writing a coherent sentence.

In fact, the only evidence he gives about his students competence in writing coherent sentences is that at the beginning of the class, possibly on the very first day, although his writing is unclear on this point, each of his students is able to give him a sentence, “all perfectly coherent and all quite different.” Um, so he’s saying that first-year college students can, when asked, write a coherent English sentence, but most graduates are “utterly unable” to do so? And, by the way, that’s it. We get no evidence that the students improve at that, or any other aspect of composition. It may well be that learning the details of how English expresses manner, tense, and mood improve sentence-writing (I’m inclined to think it would), but Prof. Fish gives us no reason to believe it or not to. In fact, his essay is rather conspicuously devoid of content.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I remember when Fish was brought in to UIC. (I have some personal connections to the school.) He proved that star power is a lure and a delusion, and should be banished from the administration.

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